I got really into mushrooms in my late 20’s because I like the drugs they make.
Antidepressants fuck up many psychedelics, which is to say, they fuck up getting fucked up. It’s a problem. It’s not that you can’t get high, but that you need to take quite a bit more (and I predict that this will be a significant problem when psilocybin is used clinically).
This is an economic issue for the consumer. You can go off antidepressants, which either hurts like hell or takes a great deal of time, or spend a lot of money. Being the intrepid renaissance man that I am, I decided to grow my own. It took a remarkable amount of time for me to do this successfully.
While I was trying and failing to grow mushrooms I grew increasingly interested in the organisms themselves. Gradually it turned into a hobby, and then an obsession.
The desert southwest is a weird place to get into mushrooms. In the valleys there are, to the best of my knowledge, only three species that occur with any regularity: A species of Ganoderma, the genus that houses the storied reishi; Podaxis pistallaris, the desert shaggy mane; and Battarrea phalloides, the desert stalked puffball. These mushrooms are all awesome. They grow in the desert. Buy them a drink if you run into them.
Surrounding Tucson, AZ are mountain ranges described as sky islands. Travelling from the base of the Santa Catalinas to the summit is, in terms of vegetation, the equivalent of driving from the US/Mexico Border to Canada. It’s an entirely different mushroom situation. During the Summer monsoons there’s a brief but stunning fruiting event. A few weeks later and nothing remains but woody conks.
After a few seasons of being way more interested in mushrooms than the stuff I was supposed to be paying attention to, I decided that I would defeat the hopelessness of my academic life and my rapidly declining mental health by pursuing a career as a grower of legal mushrooms. My girlfriend at the time told me that this was a profoundly stupid idea, which was correct, and that I didn’t have sufficient knowledge of the process, which was also correct.
I thought “I’ll show her,” and applied for an internship program with a large-scale spawn producer and manufacturer of medicinal supplements, also located in the Western US. The program was billed as ‘prestigious’ and ‘highly-competitive’. It was a hands-on learning opportunity that was hands-down the best thing a person could do with a month. I should have been skeptical when they accepted me. Nothing about my existence speaks to prestige or competition.
So I packed up my life and I went to this place. Everything looked like shit when I got there. The offices had gross carpeting and everyone looked miserable, which is standard for offices, and I waited for the arrival of the other participants with a woman who was a retired LAPD officer, which immediately makes one eligible for permanent residency in a mass grave.
After a while the other participants trickled in. A young guy from Iceland whose father had been a member of the Icelandic government and was prosecuted for some form of corruption; a lefty girl from the Midwest who crushed my dreams of being thought of as cool when she told me she had no idea what happened in Seattle in 1999; a Sikh woman, and a PhD as well; and a young man from Florida who was immediately and obviously living with a psychotic disorder.
We all lived in a shitty apartment for a month and worked ten hour days at the growing facility. It was like The Real World except none of us were attractive. The work was monotonous and difficult. In addition to spawn making, which is basically doing a bunch of stuff with millet, we also made supplements.
Supplements deserve some discussion. The way they were manufactured in this particular setting was that bags of mature mushroom spawn would be placed on baking sheets, dried in an industrial dryer, and powdered after drying. It ended up in huge barrels that would be sold on to formulators.
During the last hour of each day the five of us would be instructed in some actually relevant aspect of mycology by a charming Eastern European man. This was the only genuine learning that occurred and I’m grateful for it. It is also in this forum that the most glaring chicanery of this company was revealed. The Sikh woman was not at all stupid and was also reasonably pissed off that she’d travelled to the United States to work on an assembly line. She aired a thorough and well-informed argument against the company’s entire product line, which was a critique of the bioavailability of the supplements being produced.
Over the entire human history of medicinal mushrooms, never has it been the case that powdered mycelium grown on grain was considered medicinal. In every historical account and every clinical trial it was the spore producing fruits of the organism that were used. She went on to state that the mycelium-on-grain supplement being produced was very likely to have few if any bioavailable medicinal compounds, which was easily verified with a Google search.
Although I’d been fairly certain that the whole thing was bullshit, this was a convincer. Interestingly, depilated bear and mycological Joel Osteen Paul Stamets sells this very same snake oil.
I was also not-serious-but-serious convinced that the entire operation was a front company for the CIA.
Yes, it’s true, I am an insane person, but I think that there was a case to be made. The three highest ranking staff were, respectively, a former engineer of nuclear submarines; a former engineer of software systems for fighter jets; and a Green Beret. And they were always travelling: Nepal; Colombia; Laos; so on. When people with security clearances routinely travel to places that are or were the sites of US counterinsurgency activities it makes sense to be skeptical of their stated reasons for doing so. And they were scummy. The CEO was lecherous, observably and by reputation. An employee told me that “the company runs out of the tip of his dick”. The other two were less shitty but profoundly weird, and not in a fun way.
When I was there the president and other upper-level staff were busily working on retconning the company into a publicly traded corporation. I could see it being publicly traded for a single pure-bred dog or a very generous gift-card, but that’s about it. In order to make the company more attractive to shareholders, the president was trying to patent all sorts of fanciful shit, the most memorable of which was using rattlesnake venom to hybridize mushrooms.
Everything about the experience sucked, and I got through it by the power of weed. I’d purchased a large amount of hash in California and I smoked morning, day and night, which was status quo for me, except I did more of it. During breaks at the facility I would roll hash into cigarettes and get absolutely wasted before going back to work. And I wasn’t the only one. Weed smoke drifted out of truck windows as the full-time employees got ready for the second half of a shitty day.
The production workers were a mix of working class Latinos and Caucasians. Most were very young. Many of the Latino workers were women, while the Anglo production staff were exclusively male. Everyone was really racist and sexist which is, unfortunately, not an unusual thing in this kind of environment. And yeah, I should have said something, but I’d thrown my back out punching the ocean and I’d been told to take it easy.
The foreman was a gigantic white guy in his late 40’s who had done a long stint in prison for running guns. Anyone in this kind of position has to be sort of intimidating and he had it down. He also made one of the more interesting statements that I heard during this time. In a conversation about drugs, he stated that he had attended a Native American Church peyote ceremony and had learned that he was not a very nice person, which is honest and no doubt true. I’d learned the same thing about myself through a similar channel.
Toward the end of my time there I asked the former avionics guy what exactly the point was in bringing a group of people to the facility every month and he said that the President thought it would be a source of cheap labor. I already knew the answer to the question, but I asked him how it was working out. His reply: Poorly. Line work is considered to be unskilled, but that’s not true. For one, you need to be able to do it psychologically. Also, you need to be ergonomically graceful lest you fall on your ass.
I had been told by the President that the company had relocated to this inland part of the American West from a coastal city because (no joke) the medicinal properties of the fungi would be enhanced. This was a patent and obvious lie and I floated this assertion by one of the staff. They said no, that wasn’t at all the case. It was that the state offered a generous subsidy to businesses willing to hire former convicts. Not that I think people who have been in prison don’t deserve to work, but still, gymnast level lying needs to be exceptional to make it to the Bullshit Olympics.
I was ecstatic when the whole thing was over, and though nothing was going to get better after leaving I would at least be able to sleep past 5 A.M., which was another miscalculation.