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by Gary Lincoff
  at The Third International Medicinal Mushroom Conference / Port Townsend, Washington / October, 2005

A stone’s throw west of Alaska is a strip of land bordered by the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk, known as the Kamchatka Peninsula and part of the Russian Far East. It contains many active volcanoes and the largest population of grizzly bears in the world. It has forests of pine and birch and larch, but its broad plains are mostly tundra, areas of dwarf birch, blueberries, alder thickets, grassland, mosses and lichens. It contains two distinct human populations, the Russians, who live in and around the city of Petropavlovsk, and four major tribes of hunter-gatherers, who are scattered in villages along the coasts and throughout the peninsula’s tundra zone, and live by fishing and hunting, reindeer herding, and berry-picking.

Tundra and Woodland
Kamchatka volcano
(from a schoolbook) Fishing
Hunting sea mammals
Reindeer herding
Salmon drying in Lesnaya
Koryak and Russian -- two distinct populations

Amanita muscaria in Kamchatka

The hunter-gatherer peoples differ from the Russians in many ways but none more dramatic than in their use of mushrooms.
The Russians hunt many kinds of edible mushrooms but avoid one mushroom in particular, the fly-agaric, Amanita muscaria, which they regard as very poisonous. In fact, it is used in Russia and Europe as a fly-killer: the mushroom is placed in a cup of milk to which flies are attracted and become numbed.
The hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, collect and eat just one single mushroom, the same fly-agaric that the Russians avoid.

Alice in Wonderland illustration

The history and mythology of this mushroom’s use has been written about extensively and can be found in books, such as Toxic and Hallucinogenic Mushroom Poisoning, and on-line at numerous websites. Some believe Jesus to have been a metaphor for a secret mushroom cult. Some believe that the fly-agaric is the Soma of the ancient Indian Rg Veda poem. Others believe that it was used to make soldiers “go berserk” in warfare, that is, appear to be crazed. It is reported to have been used as a substitute for vodka, to make men drunk in northern Russia during the 18th and 19th centuries, and that drinking their urine would extend the drunkenness of these people. It is believed that Lewis Carroll read accounts by European prisoners in the Russian Far North of this mushroom’s use and then changed its effects to fit his needs when he wrote Alice in Wonderland.

Experimental use of this mushroom by people in the United States and Europe in our time to discover whether or not it is hallucinogenic has been discussed in books and on-line by Terence McKenna and Jonathan Ott and others. That it is biologically active and causes a variety of symptoms is not in doubt. How effective it is as a source of drunkenness, or as a hallucinogen, or as an ally in helping to make contact with the spirit world, while reported by many, remains to be established. Whether it is effective as a medicinal mushroom, as it has been claimed to be in Kamchatka, also remains to be established.

I led two groups of Americans to Kamchatka in 1994 and 1995 to visit with and interview groups of tribal hunter-gatherers to find out exactly what they do with this mushroom. While there, we also consumed the mushroom, the results of which we report on below. An article about these trips appeared in Shaman’s Drum (Spring, 1996), and there is also a video (“Song of Mukhomor”) about these trips made by Tom Stimson, which can be purchased on-line.

The mushroom in question, the fly-agaric, has the scientific name of Amanita muscaria. It occurs across Canada and the northern United States and Alaska, and across northern Europe and Asia, wherever birch trees and pine trees occur. It is one of the most photogenic mushrooms in the world. It is often found illustrated in storybooks for children, such as “Babar,” and it is included in field guides to the mushrooms of North America, Europe, and Asia, for instance in The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms.

Amanita muscaria v. muscaria (Kamchatka)
Amanita muscaria v. flavivolvata (Colorado)
Amanita muscaria v. formosa (New York)

There are at least three recognized color forms of this mushroom: the scarlet cap with white veil remnants (known from Europe and Asia, and called Amanita muscaria var. muscaria), the red to orange cap with yellow veil remnants (known from the Rocky Mountains to the west coast and called Amanita muscaria var. flavivolvata), and the yellow to orange cap with white veil remnanats (known from northeastern North America and called Amanita muscaria var. formosa, also known as A. muscaria var. guessowii).

The fly-agaric is known to contain at least four compounds that can cause poisoning in human beings: muscarine, ibotenic acid, muscimol, and muscazone. The only toxin of consequence, however, is muscimol. It causes, among other things, delirium, a coma-like sleep, hyperenergetic behavior on awakening, that is, revealing more power than one is thought capable of displaying, and a misperception of reality (small branches, for example, are perceived as giant logs, and vice versa).

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