Mycologist Paul Stamets lists 6 ways the mycelium fungus can help save the universe: cleaning polluted soil, making insecticides, treating smallpox and even flu viruses.
To understand how Stamets came to believe mushrooms could save the world, it helps to know how they saved Stamets.
He was born in 1955 in Salem, Ohio, one of four brothers. His father, an engineer, owned a firm that oversaw construction projects for the U.S. Army. Stamets was a shy kid with a crippling stutter who dreamed of becoming a trailblazing scientist. “We lived in a big house with a lab in the basement,” he recalls, “and I looked up every experiment I could find.” He nearly blew the place up on several occasions while tinkering with chemicals.
Then, when he was 12, his father’s business failed and the family splintered. Stamets’ mother decamped with him and his twin brother to a small apartment in Columbiana, Ohio, where they lived in poverty. Eventually, she moved with the boys to her own parents’ vacation home near Seattle and sent them on scholarship to a boarding school in Pennsylvania. Stamets felt like a misfit among preppies. He threw himself into martial arts (later earning black belts in both tae kwon do and hwa rang do) and identified with the counterculture that was reaching its crest.
During his senior year, Stamets and his brother were expelled for selling marijuana to fellow students. They hitchhiked back to Seattle, where they finished high school at a public institution. Stamets spent a summer toiling as a sawmill hand before enrolling at Kenyon College in Ohio. But he still felt out of place and spent hours wandering in the woods off campus.
That’s where he headed the day he tried hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms for the first time. He climbed a tree, but was too intoxicated to climb down. Soon a thunderstorm blew in, and he was lashed by rain and wind. As lightning struck nearby, he realized he could die at any moment, yet the scene was overwhelmingly beautiful. He felt part of the forest and the universe as never before. He reflected on his life and how to change it. “Stop stuttering now, Paul,” he told himself, repeating the phrase like a mantra.