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How mushrooms enlightened civilization May 27, 2005 - freelancenews.comBy Marty Cheek
When I tell people from out of the area that I live in Morgan Hill, I often inform them that my community bills itself as "the Mushroom Capital of the World." If I'm in a particularly corny mood, I'll add: "We're the folks who put the fun in fungi."
This Memorial Day weekend marks the 26th annual Morgan Hill Mushroom Mardi Gras celebrating the South Valley town's greatest claim to fame - even greater, in fact, than the poppy jasper gemstone found only in the hills here. Visitors will swarm all over the city's downtown to partake of the mushroom-themed cuisine and entertainment.
So what is it about this spongy little toadstool that sprouts up in moist, dark, dirt-laden places that will attract people to Morgan Hill this weekend? Quite a lot, actually.
Surprisingly, mushrooms have had a significant impact in the development of civilization. You could easily make the case that, in terms of changing the course of human history, mushrooms have had more influence than, say, even garlic - an herb celebrated in a certain South Valley city just south of Morgan Hill.
The use of mushrooms in human cultures was explored extensively by Robert Gordon Wasson, an investment banker turned amateur ethnomycologist (someone who studies the relationship between people and mushrooms). Wasson discovered the world's oldest documentation for mushroom use goes back at least 7,000 to 9,000 years ago to the Sahara region of Africa.
Now you might think that vast stretch of sand might be the last place to find mushrooms. After all, mushrooms like dark and moisture-laden places. Dry deserts seem very unpromising places as prime mushroom-growing real estate. But back several thousands years ago during the last Ice Age, the Sahara had a significantly different environment. Until the climate changed, a lush savanna made the Sahara ideal for growing mushrooms.
During the Paleolithic period, the people living on this savanna used psychedelic mushrooms in their religious ceremonies. And some experts claim early human ingestion of psilocybin, the mind-altering chemicals contained in the wild fungi, sparked an artistic impulse. Africa's stone-age artists literally got 'stoned' - on psychedelic mushrooms.
They then started carving into nearby rock formations, thus creating prehistoric renderings of - what else? - mushrooms. Wasson studied Sahara rock art and discovered mushroom images popping up repeatedly. In Algeria at a site called Tin-Tazarift, some of the Paleolithic carvings show dancers holding up a mushroom-like object in their hands. Two parallels lines stream out of the mushrooms to penetrate the dancers' heads. This suggests a mystical power passing from the mushroom to the mind.
Over long spans of time, the drug-inspired carved-rock art eventually led to the invention of writing by the ancient Sumerians. They made small wedge-shaped marks called 'cuneiforms' on wet clay tablets to permanently record useful information.
Thus mushrooms dramatically spurred civilization’s evolution. And that to me is as good a reason as any to celebrate the famous fungi in Morgan Hill this weekend.
But the history of mushrooms does not end there. Mushrooms have long retained an aura of magic and mystery for people throughout the world. In areas including Russia, China, Mexico and Latin America, mushrooms were ingested to create altered states of consciousness - a drug-induced high. People believed mushrooms gave them super-human strength or helped locate lost objects. Magic 'shrooms, they believed, even allowed a soul to leave the body and travel to a heavenly realm.
In ancient Egypt, according to hieroglyphics from 4,600 years ago, the pharaohs reserved the use of mushrooms exclusively for themselves. Commoners found enjoying them faced possible execution.
In India, mushrooms might have played a role in developing the mystical beliefs of the Far East. In his controversial book 'Soma: Divine Mushrooms of Immortality', Wasson suggests a mysterious red fruit called 'soma' described in Vedic literature might have been the psychedelic Amanita muscaria mushroom. Those who ate this fruit supposedly received a spontaneous spiritual enlightenment.
The ancient Greeks also partook of mushrooms for their hallucinogenic effects. Pilgrims from Athens would journey 14 miles to Eleusis where stood a temple honoring Demeter, the goddess of the Earth. Upon their arrival, the worshipers descended into a hidden, underground chamber. There they drank a fungal wine concoction that triggered visions.
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all participated in this secret ceremony known as the 'Eleusinian Mysteries'. Maybe Western thinking was expanded by mushroom-induced mind trips the Greek philosophers took at Eleusis. Did Plato's spacing out from psilocybin give him the idea for his famous allegory of the cave that compared illusions with reality?
Romans also esteemed mushrooms, officially proclaiming them 'The Food of the Gods'.
And here in the New World, the indigenous Nahuatl Indians of Meso-America used psilocybin mushrooms called Teonan?catl ('Flesh of the Gods&') for spiritual ceremonies. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, priests tortured and killed natives caught engaging in forbidden mushroom-based shamanic rituals.
For most of history, people enjoyed wild varieties of mushrooms. But about 2,000 years ago, the Japanese became the first to cultivate the fungi. In Europe, mushroom cultivation began in the 17th century when the French developed modern techniques to produce the delectable delicacy. Legend has it King Louis XIV was France's first mushroom grower. Caves in limestone quarries just outside of Paris were converted into his mushroom farms.
Here in the United States, mushroom cultivation got started in 1896 in Kennett Square, Penn. Flower nurseries grew the mushrooms in the shadowed areas under potting tables. Soon special mushroom houses were built providing a perfect environment for the fungi's growth.
With the mass commercial production, the popularity of mushrooms - well, mushroomed. South Valley's fungal farmers now use modern production facilities where the humidity and temperature are carefully controlled to suit the mushroom spores. In South Valley stores, you'll find various mushroom varieties grown locally including Shiitake, Oyster, Enoki, Agarcisus (little white mushrooms), Crimini (brown mushrooms) and Portobello.
And to those of you enjoying locally-grown 'shrooms at Morgan Hill's Mardi Gras, well - since I'm in a mushroom mood, I wish you a fun(gi) time!