Folio — From the July 2013 issue

Blood Spore

Of murder and mushrooms

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.

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’s last article for Harper’s Magazine, “I Walked with a Zombie,” appeared in the November 2011 issue.

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