Book Report: This Is Your Mind on Plants

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Oh, that Michael Pollan. He’s gonna convert us all to lovers of mind-enhancing substances, I think. His latest offering on this topic, This Is Your Mind on Plants (2021), makes me want to run out and try peyote, so it’s lucky that I am too white to get ahold of it (as you find out in the book, only Indians are allowed to obtain and use it in the US, as a legally protected religious right).

I had to put my coffee cup in the picture, to show I’m an addict. Lucky for me, I don’t have withdrawal symptoms.

But that’s not all the book’s about. The ever-curious Pollan explores four plants that have been used by humans to mess with their minds: opium poppies, coffee beans/tea leaves, and peyote cactus. I was especially curious about caffeine, which provided my favorite section of the book. I was surprised to learn that the caffeine fixation in Western culture is not very old at all. More fascinating to me was its relationship with the new ways of working that came up as society became more and more industrialized. Caffeine enabled people to concentrate longer, stay focused, and be more productive. Coffee breaks were actually invented to give workers their doses of their drug of choice!

Yep, it turns out that nowadays, caffeine is the most widely used addictive substance in the world, more than nicotine or alcohol. And it isn’t benign, especially since it messes with sleep patterns.

I also learned a lot about opium, but the opium section is more about the issues Pollan had when he grew some poppies for a writing assignment and discovered he could be in trouble with the law. Now, as someone who remembers lovely poppies growing in the garden at her church, this amused me. Apparently, the government doesn’t want people to know it’s easy to make a tea from poppy seed pods, or that if it’s used occasionally for aches and pains, it’s not going to addict you. Like most things, moderation rules. As I know, it’s a real good pain killer (I remember picking up Mom’s drugs when she was dying, and feeling really weird about carrying this giant thing of morphine).

Isn’t there some kind of drug in morning glories, too? Why yes, they also can be hallucinogenic.

On to more cheerful topics, and that’s good ole mescaline. What a kind drug it turns out to be. And it’s another thing that used carefully, in the right setting, provides many insights. Its effects certainly sound less potentially scary than LSD and the ilk. It apparently takes away the brain’s filters that only make you conscious of inputs that are relevant and lets you really see everything. So, you basically sit around and look at the world in its raw glory. I can see how that would be really cool, but not a way of life.

This section of the book was a lot of him trying to find the stuff and talking to various folks that a lot of readers might find a bit woo-woo, but they were okay. I would have liked to know more about the chemical aspects of how mescaline works.

To sum it all up, this is not Pollan’s most brilliant work, but I enjoyed what I learned, and always enjoy his writing. I’d like to read more about safe and intentional use of tobacco, marijuana, and alcohol, but I guess enough’s already been written about them.

Book Report: Fantastic Fungi

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Yes, another book report. That’s what happens when you take time off from your usual busy-ness-hood. Today’s book is another really special one that I bought after the Master Naturalist meeting. Fantastic Fungi is a companion to a film I need to see. The book is edited by Paul Stamets, an expert on mushrooms, who also contributes essays.

Cool book cover, plus Penney.

Before I go on and on about the writing, though, let me gush about the illustrations, which are mostly gorgeous photographs by Taylor Lockwood and others. I could look at them all day. The variety of shapes, textures, colors, and forms that mushrooms and other fungi can take surprised me. There are things in this book that I’m awed by.

The inside back cover. Look at those things!

And now for the content of the book. There are lots of short essays, interrupted by annoying large subheadings (my only complaint). The greats of mushroom science contributed, and it’s weird to read “and I discovered x in my research,” rather than “this famous person discovered x.”

Since mushrooms are an area where I lacked knowledge, I learned a lot about how mycelium and fungal networks are organized. I knew they could be very large and very old, but the contribution they make to life on this planet are way more significant than I’d realized.

My favorite page, because of all those shapes.

And that’s where this book switched from being a pretty book about a part of nature I only knew a little about to something much more significant. Over and over, the contributors to Fantastic Fungi, stressed that fungi have much to teach us and may even be able to save us, if we learn how. The subtitle is: How Mushrooms Can Heal, Shift Consciousness and Save the Planet, after all.

Reading about how we seem to be designed to use the nutrients, chemicals, and other aspects of mushrooms makes me realize we are related. And that’s the point the contributors are trying to make. Without mushrooms, plants and animals would suffer greatly. Paul Stamets, especially, speaks eloquently.

A core concept of evolution is that, through natural selection, the strongest and fittest survive. In truth, (and scientifically proven), communities survive better than individuals, especially communities that rely on cooperation. Acting on such a principe, people want to give in order to receive, which I think reflects the power of an essential goodness.

Paul Stamets, p. 66

It becomes clear from Stamets and others that all of the organisms here in Earth depend on each other. Humans have been woefully ignorant of this.

Then, they bring in the heavy hitters, Michael Pollan and people he’s worked with to talk about how mushrooms (psilocybin) can help humans realize this (which I did read about in How to Change Your Mind). And they bring in more research on the experiences people have with these mushrooms. Good stuff.

What they mainly say is that people overwhelmingly have experiences of oneness and connection with other people and the earth. Maybe this is what mushrooms are trying to tell us? If so, I’m all for it. A bit more acknowledgment of our commonality and less artificial differentiation would be fine with me.

I’m inspired. And it strikes me that focusing on this kind of mutual connection is yet another way we can help get past racism, bullying, and needless antagonism. Thank you, fungi.

Hmm. I seem to be on a journey, don’t I? Are those mushrooms growing on the cow patties what I need?

(No, I’m not gonna do it. Too law abiding. And don’t want to poison myself.)