Michael Maki – Magic Mushrooms

Psilocybe cubensis

Psilocybe cubensis

A dispatch from our POWOD (prisoner of war on drugs) correspondent:
——– * ——-
Here’s a little mushroom origin story from our experience. It was 1974, and we had heard rumors filtering up from Oregon that little magic mushrooms, liberty caps, could be found in fields in our coastal Washington State. We hunted and sampled—carefully—but couldn’t quite figure which of the many diminutive species they might be. My buddy Bill led the search, which became an obsession with him, and he became familiar with many fields and many kinds of mushrooms in Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties. The one semi-underground guidebook by Leonard Enos, with ink and watercolor illustrations, wasn’t much help. We knew they had to be there, but which ones were they?

Then, a friend got a letter from some local folks who had emigrated to Canada during the height of the Vietnam War and draft, and ended up on one of the remote Queen Charlotte Islands. They reported that hippies were coming there from all over the world to sample the legendary liberty caps, which grew abundantly in the fall. We anted up between us enough to help send the fellow there to obtain a live sample.

When he came back with the tiny packet in hand, Bill knew immediately which ones they were and where to find them. Exultant, we began stalking lowland pastures with certain types of indicator plants. They were everywhere! Actually, they were very shy and hard to spot, but after finding the first ones in a new field, and ingesting a few, they would suddenly appear as if by magic. Low-angle autumn afternoon light helped.

We spent many hours hunched over and on hands and knees locating and picking the indigenous delights. In the rain we donned ponchos, and after dark sometimes added headlamps. What we didn’t know was that all down the Pacific Coast of Washington and Oregon, others had made the same discovery and were pretty much doing the same thing.

We measured our daily take in plastic breadsack-fulls, and devised various drying set-ups. One of the ad hoc favorites, although limited in volume, was an empty bathtub with an electric heater inside, with window screens covering the rim. The humid, humusy smells filled the house. Candles on the table were surrounded with rainbow auras, rainy nights were magical, and sunny fall days exquisite. We had become friends and allies with these tiny little nipple-capped beings, and they were indigenous to our moist homeland.

For the first year and a half, we had the rural counties to ourselves; no one else seemed to be on to them. Curious cows would gather around us, mooing and jostling each other around the creeping humanoids. Occasionally a bull would run us out of “his” field. Curious farmers began to inquire just what we were up to, and we told them we were mycologists from the University of Washington, which seemed to work for awhile. We found that shallow drafts boats could drift from field to lowest-lying field, without having to park on the road and draw attention from the rural residents.

But a bonanza like this couldn’t stay secret forever, and the word got out, both to other young enthusiasts and then to the landowners and public in general. Soon the issue became trespassing, and magic mushrooms became an item of public interest, both pro and con. It quickly got to the high school, and of course out of hand. The beleaguered Pacific County sheriff saw a way out, announcing that “Peyote mushrooms [sic] don’t grow in Washington, so these young folks are completely mislead. We will arrest people for trespassing if landowners wish, but this magic mushroom thing is a myth.” Case closed. But so was the mushroom frontier by then.

Then we heard about a source for a little kit that enabled one to grow magic mushrooms, of a different species, indoors. Rumor had it that it was even associated with the mysterious Mr. Enos, with an Arizona address. We sent the requisite money order and soon received a fishbowl with the culture and growing instructions, which yielded a mere handfull of warm-climate mushrooms, but stimulated an interest that led to a later career in mushroom growing, which eventually led me to my current station here at the Sheridan, Oregon Federal Prison Camp. There’s a lot more to this story, but those are the beginnings.

Another thread of the story, though, is that right around the same time in the mid 1970’s, we decided we wanted to begin growing outdoor marijuana, and wanted to start right with the very best seeds possible. So, following a lead that connected us to a San Francisco rock band, Bill and I hitchhiked to California to trade a bag of our dried magic fruit for the foundation stock of our pot-growing phase, which was to last, off and on, through the next couple of decades.

Along the way, we were picked up by a fellow hippie in a tired red Econoline van, who had fled to Canada, but had immediately gotten tired of the winter and changed course to Mexico, his southern destination. Along the way, we made a deal with him to trade his van for a ticket to Hawaii, so we dropped him off at the San Francisco airport, he signed off on the van (with temporary Utah plates taped in the rear window), and we had wheels and seeds to start our enterprise. We got a couple gallons of green paint, and with rollers and brushes gave the rig a less conspicuous paint job. Many adventures followed, the stuff of local legend and a lot of laughter.

Since I got here two and a half years ago, I’ve let my hair grow long for the first time since that early 70’s era when I cut it to look less obvious as we drove around the backwoods of Southwest Washington. I have assumed the (not inaccurate) persona of the diligent hippie that I have always been, a Digger in the prison horticulture program and perennial smiling personification of good cheer and encouragement. I’ve coined a Buddhistic phrase to describe it: deep cheerfulness, and seek to practice it in the face of all discouraging things that are part of our life here in this human warehouse.

Michael Maki

Mike Maki & Larry Korn

Michael Maki (left, in prison duds) with Larry Korn, appropriately slightly out of focus and up against a wall at Sheridan Federal Prison Camp in Oregon

The first three books in my Dominick Chronicles—New Jerusalem News, Some People Talk with God, and Next Exit Paradise—each had its own location—the New England coast, the Hudson Valley, and Hawaii respectively. Dominick is a wanderer, and America is his serendipitous hobby. For reasons now vague, I decided to site the fourth book in the Pacific Northwest. But it had been forty years since I wandered that part of the country. I would need help with local color details.

I now live in the locale of the first book, spent time in Catskill and Hudson researching the second, and relied heavily upon my painter friend Catherine Buchannan on Molokai for the details to jog my memory in the third. A younger me would have headed west to revisit that stretch of coast between Mendocino and Olympia that always felt like a home I never got to live in. But for all the usual boring reasons of infirmity, poverty, and inertia that was not going to happen. I reached out to my old friend Larry Korn* in Oregon for assistance.

Larry, bless him, got me in touch with one of his good friends, the horticulturalist Michael Maki, who is a native son and long-time denizen of that piece of rural coastline I had come to focus on, around South Bend, Washington. Mike and I connected, and he came through, bringing coastal Washington back to life for me, helping me create the fictional town of Port Athens, where Dominick now finds himself, again enmeshed, against his wishes, in local affairs and other people’s problems.

But all that is really beside the point here, as the important thing that happened was that I got to meet Mike Maki through his writing. I will let him introduce himself here, then in future blogs share more of his observations.

I am right now at two and a half years into a 48 month sentence for growing and distributing magic mushrooms, Psilocybe cubensis. This was my first federal arrest besides one in 1972 as a draft resister during the Vietnam War, for which I got lucky and had charges dropped, besides an additional after-the-fact pardon from Jimmie Carter. Which isn’t to say it was the first time I ever grew psychoactive fungi, but it was the first time I ever sold them to a wired-up federal informer (who I thought was a friend) trying to save his hide on another drug charge, unbeknownst to me.

I went down as collateral damage in another drug investigation. The “mushroom people” aren’t really on the screen of law enforcement, not being a dangerous drug as measured by any of the standards of addiction, violence, or bad social judgment (except perhaps the questioning of authority), but still sitting in the Catch-22 catch-all category known as DEA Schedule I, the most dangerous category, where unfortunately and inaccurately marijuana currently lies, along with heroin and other truly dangerous drugs. I have always and continue to believe in the value of psilocybin and other drugs in the class called entheogens. All of this story is told in greater depth on my FaceBook page, “Support Mike Maki.” For a lot more information and current science in this field, I recommend the published work of MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

So here I am in a minimum security Federal Prison Camp (FPC) in Sheridan, Oregon, along with nearly 500 other men, many of whom are here because of a residential drug treatment program here that can qualify an inmate to up to one year off sentence for completion of the nine month program. I have been deemed unqualified for the program, since, well, magic mushrooms aren’t addictive or dangerous to myself or others, which loops into the Catch-22 part of this legal circus. So I’m doing my time, teaching landscape horticulture in the voc-ed program here, and generally making myself as useful as I can, following the old leftist dictum: You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.

Feel free, John, to post and share my letters out. I’m here at an interesting historical turning point, kind of like I was during the Vietnam War, when the authorities lost heart for throwing young men into federal prison for their beliefs, and just before an illegal and unjust war ground to an end. The so-called War on Drugs is likewise winding and grinding down, and society is awakening to the facts of its injustice and inequity. And that’s the way it is here on the frontiers of social change. All the best to you and your readers, MM

* See Larry’s new book, One Straw Revolutionary: The Philosophy and Work of Masanobu Fukuoka (Chelsea Green Publishing)

In Hoc Signo Vinces

In Hoc Signo VincesThis is not an invented memory, not one of those autobiographic moments reconstructed out of other peoples’ recall and conjecture because you weren’t paying attention like that at the time. I was there and aware, capturing it all on synaptic memory tape. No one else had to describe it to me. Probably no one else even remembered, although there were hundreds of people there—an auditorium full of fellow high school graduates, their families and friends, and up on the stage the all-male, black-caped faculty. For all of them it was just another slow moment in an over-long ceremony to be suffered through, an event of no benefit nor interest to them, the most minor of awards—given first to signify its inconsequence.

I didn’t know that such a thing as a religious medal was to be given. If it was in the program, I had missed it. There was quite a lot I was missing in those days. It was as if I had devised a new mode of meditation based upon paying no attention whatsoever. Alcohol helped. That was the year I discovered the circus of saloons. By its end I had pretty much deserted school altogether, doing only what I had to do in order to escape. Attending graduation was the terminal obligation. I was there because my parents were there. I would rather have given it a miss. I knew I would be skipping all the parties afterwards, using their excuse for a nice private pub crawl. There would be a few helpful envelopes with cash from aunts and uncles.

It was an all-boys Jesuit high school, all-white as well in those days. There were 190 in the graduating class. I remember that number for some reason. I wonder if it is right. A little research tells me that was the summer when—among the many other things I didn’t notice—the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools, Duke Snider (as a Met) hit his 400th homerun, and the first Beatles songs hit the charts. When my name was read out, I was somewhere else, maybe listening in my mind to The Drifters “Up on the Roof.” (This was before songs were stored in little boxes attached to your belt, but in your head instead.) The guy beside me bumped me, “Hey, asshole, that’s you.”

“You what?” I asked, irked.

“Your name, some award.”

At the end of the row a priest was motioning for me to get up and come to him. “Go up on stage and get your religious medal,” he said. This is where the brain film comes into focus.

There was no applause, not as there would be for the sports, honors, and scholarship awards to others that followed. A sort of embarrassed hush fell over those assembled. What sort of boy would win such an award? The Irish among them would know that mine was an Irish surname, and maybe their women would take some sort of twisted pride. “And the medal for the Most Deceived” goes to one of ours. “God bless him.” Others would just see the ultimate kiss-ass, a priesty-boy, a genuflector. It really didn’t matter. None of them knew me. None of them mattered. By the afternoon’s end they would all be history.

You can’t walk fast in a graduation gown, but I was in no hurry. This was my valedictory march. Any who cared could take a long look, because the lanky boy strolling down the inclined aisle to the stage had really already vanished. It was his ghost in a gown who mounted the steps to the stage. Whoever it was they thought they saw accept the small blue box and shake hands with the priest they would never see again. He no longer existed.

Albeit a Catholic school, there was but one religious club there, the Sodality, a small group of boys who met weekly and practiced the meditations of St. Ignatius. In three of my four years in the group I had been elected its prefect, a meaningless position no one else wanted. Meditators don’t need a leader. I had joined the Sodality because I had liked the idea of meditation. Then I had learned to like meditating as well, the practice of escape. I had a feel for it, though my destinations were rarely religious or even spiritual. It was like going to a private room and turning the lights out one by one until there was just darkness and no thought.

Perhaps because the school was such an externally religious institution, there was no need for a show of internal sanctimony. That wasn’t the Jesuit way. Seeing as we were all born and bred Catholic boys, there was no point in being extreme about it. The proper protocols were observed, but in a manly, non-sentimental mode that frowned upon any public display of spirituality. I guessed that my stint as Sodality prefect had made me a contender for the award that had few other candidates. Off hand, I couldn’t think of anyone else I would have nominated or wished it on. Being named holiest boy was hardly a prize.

Or perhaps there was another motive. As I climbed the stairs to the stage I could see hanging on the curtain behind the seated faculty the school’s gold and blue and white banner, which included the Jesuits’ heraldic logo, a twining together of the letters IHS, signifying the order’s motto—In Hoc Signo Vinces. In this sign conquer. The priest who stood up to hand me the medal was the Father Provincial. As he shook my hand he said, “You haven’t come back to see me, John.” In Hoc Signo Vinces in deed. These guys didn’t give up.

The previous winter I had taken the battery of exams to enter the Jesuit novitiate. A snowy Saturday. I was badly hung-over. The testing took all day. There was a rigorous Latin translation section along with general intelligence and psychological multiple-choice tests. I hadn’t told anyone I was doing this. It was a secret plan of escape. Escape from what? Why, the real world, of course—adulthood and all of its choices. With this one decision I could avoid making most of the rest. Or something like that. My older brother Jim was already in a seminary. I knew I’d look good in the long black soutane and high collar. It was a viable path, a voluntary surrender. It had nothing to do with Jesus.

The only time I had met Father Provincial had been several weeks after that entrance exam. I was pulled from class and escorted to his office in the mansion beside the school. I had no idea where I was going or why. The double doors to his office were of black iron filigree and etched frosted glass. Father Provincial was a small man. He wanted to discuss my test results. I figured I’d booted the Latin part. After four years of indoctrination, the official language of the Church was still my enemy. But no, I’d passed the Latin, marginally. It was the psych part I had flunked. He read to me the analyst’s conclusions—something to do with an abnormally high honesty quotient and problems with authority figures. I missed much of it. The room had beautiful arched casement windows of leaded glass with stained-glass insets, the work of artisans from another century. I went there.

As Father Provincial read, it dawned on me that what he was saying was that I had been diagnosed as too crazy to be a priest, and this struck me as funny, a catch-22 joke on me. The anonymous, impersonal analyst had gotten it right; I was impressed. In his 3M web of true-or-false questions he had netted an imposter. I had no business pretending to be priest material. I was damaged goods, not worth the risk of investment. (Vestments—the medieval colored costumes of the sanctuary that for years as an altar boy I had assisted priests to don in ritual order—how silly they would have looked on me.)

“I was not supposed to read you that,” Father Provincial said. He was a pleasant looking little man with tired eyes. “But we can make it all right. Some psychiatric counseling, another round of tests.” He was trying to be nice, which seemed either out of character or out of place.

“No, that’s alright, father. Don’t go to the trouble. I accept the decision. Thank you.” And I got up to leave. Father Provincial objected, followed me to the door. Surely I would reconsider, think about it, come back to see him again and discuss it. The order would pay for everything. Actually, I remember those fancy French double doors from this side, looking out as I was leaving. There was sunlight in the hall beyond them. Opening and walking through them freed me.

I had kept my application and rejection secret, never told my parents; and I had no friends, either male or female, close enough to speak with about something so personal. So I had no explaining to do or backtracks to cover. I also had no regrets. Whereas before the priesthood had seemed a logical, if not natural, progression, it now seemed naively ludicrous. I never went back.

After the graduation ceremony I turned in my rented cap and gown, gave my diploma (embossed with the IHS logo) and box with the medal to my mother, and told her I’d be home in an hour or two for the small family party she’d planned. I felt like walking, I said. The closest saloon was down on the corner of Main. At the bar I ordered a shot and a beer back and pulled my last Pall Mall from its pack. Before crumbling up the red pack as trash I looked at the heraldic crest on it and its scrolled Latin caption—In Hoc Signo Vinces. I toasted my old self goodbye.

Pall Mall pack