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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Hackers, Mason Jars, and the Psychedelic Science of DIY Shrooms

It began with a Mason jar. It was wide-mouthed and translucent, good for air flow and the visual inspection of radial growth. The year was 1975 and Dennis McKenna, then a starry-eyed 25-year-old, was on a mission to grow magic mushrooms. An article in the academic journal Mycologia by a researcher who had grown button mushrooms for genetic analysis had given him the idea to use the household item as a vessel. It was small scale, affordable, reusable, and inconspicuous, plus he could buy it at any grocery store. He filled it with rye grain for a substrate, sterilized it, and inoculated the rye with spores he’d brought back from Ecuador and germinated on agar. And then he hoped for the best. It was a weighty undertaking; these spores were from mushrooms that had revealed cosmic truths to Dennis and his brother, Terence. Dennis wrote in his memoir some 40 years later, “We wanted a steady supply so we could easily revisit those dimensions; more importantly we wanted others to have their own experiences as a way of testing ours.”

Whether driven by trans-dimensional communications, the scientific method, or both, the brothers got their wish, and then some. Making use of Dennis’s undergraduate lab skills, and with help from Terence’s girlfriend, Kat Harrison, they formulated and then published in 1976 (under pseudonyms) the first reliable instructions for the controlled production of psilocybin mushrooms in Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide. From that first manual, a new domestic practice was born, one that adapts modern lab skills to populist, albeit psychedelic, applications. The directions were tailored to one species in particular, the most potent and easiest to cultivate: Psilocybe cubensis. P. cubensis (or cubensis, for short) soon became the model species—and the Mason jar the standard vessel—for magic mushroom cultivation.

The evolution of these home cultivation methods is a story of user-generated, iterative design, the kind that has become familiar in the internet age. Today, Google “How to grow magic mushrooms,” and you’ll find countless books, YouTube videos, websites, online courses, and free PDFs. Whereas the instructions in Psilocybin were meticulous and complicated, today’s methods are simplified to the point of being nearly fool-proof. As psilocybin moves farther out of the margins and into the mainstream towards mass market commodification, the story of Psilocybe cultivation reminds us that these mushrooms have been an object of scientific and technological experimentation for over half a century. This little-known history is entangled with the early internet in both its cultural values and practical sensibility. Though the criminalization of psilocybin pushed them underground, cultivators came together online, united by a collective fascination for mushrooms, a shared love of tinkering and hacking, and the drive to share their knowledge and know-how freely.

For most of its history, mycology has been overlooked and understudied, relegated to the shadows of botany and microbiology. Mushroom cultivation has been around in China since at least the 7th century but it didn’t develop in Europe until hundreds of years later. In the 20th century, a new scientific understanding of fungi gave rise to a high-yield industry, but mycology and mushroom cultivation remained an obscure niche. It was a revelation to both mycologists and the psychedelic-curious when, in 1957, an article in Life magazine described the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms among Mazatec people in Southern Mexico. But until the publication of the McKennas manual, psilocybin-producing species were a rare, seasonal, and wild-foraged delicacy among hippies. In the wake of Psilocybin, and with the growing interest in gourmet and medicinal mushrooms, a handful of manuals opened up the craft of cultivation in the ’80s and ’90s. The first of these manuals, Paul Stamets and Jeff Chilton’s The Mushroom Cultivator (1983), became a veritable bible for a new generation of aspiring mushroom farmers.

The overarching focus of these manuals was how to avoid contamination. Although mushrooms are often associated with dirt and rot, they require a sterile environment for cultivation. In the wild, a single mushroom can drop between one to thirty billion spores per day, but faced with countless microbial competitors and widely varying environments, very few of these spores actually germinate. When they do, they grow into individual threads of mycelium, which then explore their environment, mate, and form an enmeshed network. Eventually they produce fruit bodies (mushrooms) and start the process over again. But the cultivator is working with only a tiny fraction of this living material, so the goal is to eliminate the random chance involved. Instead of launching trillions of spores, cultivators get rid of the competition: They sterilize a fine-tuned growing environment and then introduce the spores they want to grow. The problem is that microbial contaminants are everywhere—they live on our skin and eyelashes, nestle in the folds of our clothing, and float through the air on dust particles. Every interaction over the open vessel risks contamination. One wrong move and the batch is bad.

Taken altogether, these practices are called “sterile technique”—the bane and the pride of every serious mushroom cultivator. Good sterile technique can mean the difference between a pound of fresh mushrooms and jars full of green mold. Specialized tools can help, but they’re generally expensive and bulky.

By the early 1990s, although the craft of cultivation was no longer hidden knowledge, it was still a precarious and painstaking process. The instinct to radically simplify methods germinated among experimental minds. Like most people, Robert McPhearson, a middle-aged jazz musician, had mixed luck with the standard method of inoculation. So he tried injecting the spores as a liquid solution through small holes punched into the Mason jar lid that were sealed with masking tape. He also experimented with materials to better protect the substrate from airborne contaminants.When it came time to fruit, he simply transferred the now brick-like myceliated grain to a larger Mason jar (but a big glass bowl would do just as well). Whether through luck or intuition, his tweaks yielded abundant fruit bodies.


And then came his greatest innovation: selling the spore syringes by mail, bundled with instructions for his newfangled technique. Psilocybin is illegal to possess, but the spores of Psilocybe cubensis don’t technically contain it, a tiny legal loophole through which a cottage industry of mail-order spore syringes wormed its way and sprouted. Now the would-be cultivator only needed the spore syringe, a Mason jar, some kitchenware, and the ability to follow directions. McPhearson called the method the PF Tek. (PF because he called himself Psylocybe Fanaticus, and Tek short for “technique.”) Beginning in 1991, the PF Tek found slow-burn success from ads in the back of High Times. (“FAIL PROOF Psylocybe cubensis spore injecting culture kits. One quart of pure cultures guaranteed. Fruitable!”) As the internet grew, instructions found their way online and it quickly became the new standard for growing cubensis.

Just as mushroom cultivation was finding new audiences, the rise of online forums began transforming the practice. In 1997, a 15-year-old named Ythan Bernstein built Shroomery.net over his summer break. The website was modeled on lycaeum.org and erowid.org, two pioneering online forums for resources on psychedelics. Sections multiplied; numerous subthreads were born. Before long, Shroomery had an amiable rival in Mycotopia.net. Once a strange and solitary hobby, cultivators and mycological enthusiasts could now trade stories and tips online. They formed a community of fellow mycophiles with their own slang and internal debates. They troubleshot their cultivation fails and gave feedback and advice. Today, the site is a rabbit warren of layered conversations and a treasury of practical know-how. The tone is typical: a mix of nerdy zeal, wry jokes, homemade animated gifs, fraternal competitiveness, and mutual support. The site has produced its own homegrown masters: Hippie3, Roger Rabbit, Alan Rockefeller, to name a few. Collectively, these forums have generated some of home cultivation best practices. The “airport lid,” a lo-tech modification of the Mason jar that was first introduced by Hippie3 in 2005, is one of the most well-known. This innovation, which uses a tuff of Poly-Fil and a dab of RTV silicone rubber, was quickly adopted, modified, and refined by users on Shroomery and Mycotopia and is now taught widely as an easy and reliable way to avoid contamination.

Scroll through these online forums today, and you’ll find that mastery and experimentalism is still prized, but so is ease and accessibility. As the practice has evolved over the years, these values have continued to shape home cultivation practices. “Easy AF” is the ideal and, as Fanaticus showed us, sterile-ish is often good enough. Why? Because it allows more people to participate and experiment on their own. Resourcefulness and inventiveness—especially creative appropriation—are equally valued. Underlying all of this is a commitment to an open source and do-it-yourself ethos. The kinship with the hacker ethic is not incidental: This kind of psychedelic kitchen science shares a genealogy with personal computing, both with roots in 1970s Northern California counterculture and its communalism, pragmatism, and eco-modern aesthetic. While these histories have diverged, reconverged, and diverged again, home cultivators and hackers still share critical attitudes towards science and technology—especially in their principled freedom from the norms of professional science while appropriating its tools. They share the drive to spread technological fluency, to make science and technology serve people rather than the other way around. And they share a mischievous, sometimes trollish, sense of humor.

The young McKenna brothers’ dreams of psilocybin mushroom cultivation have succeeded beyond their wildest visions. And as psychedelics teeter on the brink of legitimacy, more and more people are learning these cultivation methods. Challenges remain. To begin with, psilocybin is still a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that it’s considered to have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical value. Although its legal status is being challenged, even if it’s rescheduled, it will likely still be a controlled substance. (These threats are not abstract; McPhearson himself was convicted of a felony and spent six months in home detention after the DEA busted his door and raided his home with helicopters and assault rifles in 2003.)

But the history of home cultivation reminds us that lo-tech, adaptable, and modular designs can be some of the most far-reaching technology. The cultivator’s Mason jar is a cross between a petri dish and a terrarium, somewhere between fermentation and the caretaking of house plants and pets, ingeniously simplified. With it, cultivators brought the lab back into the kitchen, where it was once practiced by alchemists and herbalists before being cordoned off into universities and corporate labs. Science and technology have never been the exclusive property of those with the most degrees, funds, and patent attorneys. Rather, it’s the work of countless anonymous (and pseudonymous) inventors who live on in the practical knowledge they create, the material inventions they leave behind, and the living organisms they propagate. It’s a story that is still unfolding and it’s open to new improvisations.

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