The Bittersweet Story of Sugar

The Bittersweet Story of Sugar

The story of sugar is bittersweet indeed. It is a story of addiction that is responsible for millions of deaths, unspeakable suffering, despicable abuse, savage cruelty, ruthless exploitation, social injustice, ecological destruction, and last, but by no means least – a legacy of public health problems including dental decay, diabetes, obesity, and cancer, which combined cost millions of dollars in annual health budgets around the world.

The story of sugar can starts somewhere around 15000BC. Sugar cane is a tall reed and a member of the grass family. It originating in New Guinea, but it must have been pretty popular, even in prehistoric times as by 6000BC it had spread to India, China, and the Fiji Islands. The Arabs introduced it to the Occident and planted it in what is now Iraq and Persia. At that time, the Arabs were spreading throughout southern Europe, taking their most important food plants with them and traded in sugar, back then an expensive rarity that was mostly sold as medicine.

Sugar’s reputation as a medicinal substance actually has a long tradition. In Ayurvedic medicine, various forms of sugar were used for eons and still play a role as adjuncts to countless compound remedies. As early as 600BC it was mentioned in numerous ancient texts, where it is referred to as ‘Sharkara’. It was classified into twelve different types according to the quality. A thin type of reed known as Vamshika was considered ‘superior’ quality.

sugar

It appears that the art of making sugar was invented in India, in about 100BC. Originally the cane was simply boiled to obtain a concentrated, unrefined type of sugar known as jaggery or ‘gur’. Ancient Greek historians described it as ‘a kind of honey from a reed, produced without bees’.

A turning point came in 1097AD when some crusaders robbed a caravan in Palestine and made off with 11 camel loads of sugar. Very soon after, in 1100AD Venice became the most important trading port for sugar – and as a result, it prospered mightily!

But the competition was stiff, even back then. By around 1400AD, the Portuguese had taken over to become the biggest force in the sugar trade. In 1420AD they started to settle the island of Madeira, which they had only discovered the year before. Soon they had stripped the island of its natural vegetation in order to plant sugar cane. Of course, laborers were needed to do all the hard work.

That problem was solved by Henry the Explorer, who in 1444, on one of his voyages to circumnavigate Africa, had kidnapped a group of 235 natives from Lagos, which he had brought back to Seville. The Portuguese bought them as slaves to work in the new Portuguese sugar plantations. Columbus himself is said to have been involved in these early plantations. Soon after, the Canary Islands suffered the same fate. And, as we all know, it was from here that in 1493AD Columbus began his second voyage to Hispaniola, carrying in the vault of his ship some sugar cane cuttings- the beginnings of a very dark chapter of history that was to change the world forever. The story of sugar shows that European expansion did not happen haphazardly. It happened by design and should be regarded as a crime.

sugar harvest

At first, sugar cane was only planted on a fairly small scale, in Hispaniola. the biggest problem of the Conquistadores was that the native population was utterly unwilling and ‘unsuitable’ as a workforce. Work on the sugar plantation is very hard. Clearing land, planting, and harvesting by hand in the heat of the tropical sun was back-breaking enough, but processing the canes in the presses and boilers to make sugar is what became known as the proverbial sweatshop, and a dangerous one at that.

The natives simply refused, preferring to die rather than to perform the work, or if they were forced into this horrendous slavery, they soon died in droves from the inhumane working conditions. Within 20 years of Columbus’ arrival in Hispaniola (now Haiti) the native population shrank from an estimated 800 000 – 2 million inhabitants to only 15000, and 30 years later they were completely annihilated.

To solve the labor problem, plantation owners imported slaves from Africa. Africans were brutally rounding up like animals, tied together, and marched for miles to the shipping port. How is it possible that human beings can be so cruel and heartless towards another fellow human being? The answer is denial by means of ‘dehumanization’. Europeans were high on sugar: they were greedy, power-hungry, and willing to sacrifice their humanity for profits. They simply denied Blacks the status of a human being.

They regarded them as subhuman and considered their lives to be inconsequential, except as a workforce. The brutal excesses of slavery are well documented and there is no need to spell them out in every bloody detail again. Suffice to say that over the course of 400 years about 20 million Africans were forced into slavery and transported across the Atlantic (several million more were sold into slavery elsewhere). Millions died from the unspeakably harsh conditions (20% of those that were captured never even survived the journey). In the 18th century, the value of one ton of sugar was considered equivalent to one slave. In 1801 alone, 35000 slaves died for the 70 000 tons of sugar that England imported that year.

sugar press

Sugar plantations dramatically changed the demographic face of the world. Over the course of 400 years, the native population of the Caribbean Islands was practically obliterated, Africans from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds were imported. Irish, Welsh, and Scottish immigrants followed and after the abolition of slavery, Chinese and Indians were lured in as a cheap workforce.

In 1747, a German researcher by the name of Maggrave discovered that sugar beets yielded a substance that was identical to cane sugar. Europe began its own sugar production, but it was only when Napoleon issued a trade embargo against products from the transatlantic colonies that Europe’s domestic sugar production really took off.

sugar plantation

Apart from the devastating human impact, sugar plantations also had dire ecological effects. Sugar demands good soil as well as plenty of water, and it is extremely hungry for expansion. Millions of acres of native forests were decimated to make room for this monoculture cash crop. Water supplies became polluted from the industrial waste and water tables sank. As in all monocultures, pesticides and fungicides need to be applied in vast quantities, thus further polluting the soil and the water as well as poisoning the workers.

Social injustice is programmed into each and every cash crop economy and the vestiges of unfair land distribution determine the political, socioeconomic, and demographic patterns in all parts of the world where colonial powers with their cash crop economies once ruled.

And yet, in comparison, sugar cane is easily the most destructive cash crop the world has ever exploited. Apart from the human and environmental production costs mentioned above refined sugar offers no nutritional benefit what-so-ever. It provides nothing but empty calories while causing major damage to our physical health. Yet, we classify it as a food. Health problems related to excessive levels of sugar in the diet, such as obesity and diabetes, are costing health services literally billions of dollars each year. Yet, sugar’s grip on society’s sweet tooth continues unabated – in fact, global sugar production and consumption are still steadily increasing. This sweet drug has driven the world economy for hundreds of years, and as we have seen, with disastrous consequences. It is not the sugar plant that is at fault, but our addictive minds.  Addiction and denial go hand in hand. As long as we refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem we can simply go on ‘as normal’, fulfilling the cravings while ignoring the consequences. Whether the object of desire is sugar, coffee, tea, cocoa, tobacco – or oil, the patterns that drive consumption and ruthless exploitation are the same.

Fiber Plants

Fiber Plants

SpinningDeep within the womb of the earth mother, beneath the roots of the cosmic World Tree ‘Yggdrasil’, lies the abode of three old wise women. Known as ‘the Norns’, which means ‘the fates’, they govern the thread of life: Urd (Earth) spins it, Verthandi (Becoming) measures it, and Skuld (Fate) cuts it. No-one, not even the gods, can overrule them. Every soul that enters the world receives their personal thread. And with that, they are equipped and ready to weave their own little patch of the tapestry of life.

‘We are the weavers, we are the web’

Many traditions consider spinning and weaving sacred activities. The Kogi Indians, for example, who live in the Sierra Nevada of Colombia, have a most intricate cosmology. They pass it on by weaving its symbolism into their cloth. 

The art of spinning is a meditative act. As they twist and roll a mass of fibers into smooth thread thoughts and prayers are meshed and entwined with the yarn. In Kogi cosmology, spinning is a sacred act that aligns the inner order with that of the universe. The spindle represents the equivalent of a ‘lingam-yoni’ symbol, the male and female aspects of the universe, joined in an act of creation. The wooden shaft represents the Axis Mundi that connects heaven with the underworld. The disk at the top, called ‘the whorl’, symbolizes the world itself. The Kogis imagine the Sun-God as a ‘transcendental weaver’, who weaves the tapestry of life on his cosmic loom. The four corners of the loom represent the equinoxes and solstices, which mark the cornerstones of the year. Every year he weaves two pieces of cloth, one for himself and one for his wife, the Moon.

Coded messages

All over the world, weavers encode the symbols of the old mysteries and weave them as patterns and symbols into their fabrics and clothes. Textile designs often convey very specific messages about the social role of the wearer, their ancestry, and their marital status. In other words, it reflects one’s place in the world. 

Thus, fiber plants play a hugely important role. They are not merely a material resource or commercial crop but as the stuff with which we ‘weave the web of life’. In such a cosmology, humans beings are co-creators of the cosmic design and we shape our world accordingly. 

Ancient beginnings

It is not known when humankind first learned how to extract fibers from plant materials and to spin them into yarn. But archaeological evidence suggests that weaving and spinning can be traced back at least 5000 years. Egyptians mummies were wrapped in sheets of linen and we know that even the Neolithic lake dwellers of what is now Switzerland already cultivated flax. Hemp was used in China at about the same time. 

What exactly is a Fibre?

Fibers are structural elements of a plants’ anatomy. One could say, they are the equivalent of our connective tissue. They give them strength, support, and resilience to withstand the wear and tear of wind and weather.

All plants has fibers, but not all of them are suitable for producing yarn. Most are too short or too brittle. Some are just right but can be difficult to extract. Processing fibers to make yarn is a lengthy and complicated process.

sisal fibersCollecting the plant material

The first step is to collect plenty of suitable plant materials. Tall, herbaceous plants such as stinging nettle or hemp work well. Their fibres are long and not too brittle. Harvest takes place when the plants are at the peak of their development.

Retting

The next step is to separate the fibers from the decomposable plant matter. This is done by a process known as ‘retting’. To prepare the plants, the leaves and stalks are stripped off and discarded.

The remaining stalks are then cracked and submerged in water until the non-fibrous parts rot away.

The retting procedure varies slightly, depending on the specific source plants. Once the soft parts have rotted away the fibers are left behind. They must be washed, ‘combed’ and thoroughly dried before they can be processed further .

The rise of synthetic fibers

The discovery of oil brought in a new era of synthetic fibers that made natural fibers too work-intensive and expensive to compete. By now they have become ‘luxury items’! We don’t spare much thought on all the ingenious methods that our ancestors have developed in order to keep warm. But, in recent years, we are re-discovering the advantages of natural fibers: they can be grown sustainably, ddo not depend on oil and are biodegradable. They also make fabrics that ‘breathe’, which means, less sweating.

Natural fiber products are also used as an important source of insulation material that regulates indoor temperatures’, can ‘breathe’ and is non-toxic.

Flax Flowers
flax bundles

Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

Flax or linseed is the source plant of linen. It is one of the oldest fiber plants known to humankind. Flax likes a mild, somewhat humid climate. In the past, it was grown as far north as Scotland and as far south as Egypt, where flax shrouds were used to cover the mummies.

The plants are retted to extract the fibers. These must then be cleaned and brushed before they can be spun into a yarn. Flax fibers are very long and do not break easily. Instead, their resilience increases when they are wet. The quality of the yarn varies widely. It may be spun into an almost silk-like thread or, left coarse, it can be used for making canvass or carpet backing. Natural linen is buff to grey colored and can be bleached in the sun. It does not dye easily, as the fiber is hard and naturally resistant. Bleaching deteriorates its quality, reducing its strength and weight. Linen appears stiffer and harder than cotton and wrinkles more easily, which may be why it has gone out of fashion. However, linen conducts heat better than cotton, making garments feel ‘cooler’. Its smooth texture resists dirt.

See also: Flax – Linum usitatissimum

cotton
cotton field

Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum)

Cotton is still the most important fiber plant of all. I mention it separately because it is a story of its own. Cotton derives from various species of Gossypium, and belongs to the Mallow family. Unlike the other fiber plants discussed above, its fibers do not derive from the stem but from the seeds, which grow inside a capsule known as a ‘boll’. The seed is surrounded by a soft, fluffy material called ‘lint’, which consists of fibers that can easily be spun into thread.

Cotton is a tropical crop of enormous commercial importance. It has also been at the center of the dark and ugly business of the slave trade and all the pain and misery and injustice that it entailed.

Cotton is very productive and lucrative, but also a very labor-intensive crop to grow. The invention of the ‘cotton gin’ (cotton engine), made the process much easier. A cotton gin is a machine that automatically separates the cotton fibers from the seeds, which made the whole process far more efficient. Today, cotton processing, including the picking, is largely done by machines.

Cotton has become problematic in other ways, though. The plants are highly susceptible to numerous bugs, which means that they are subject to intense agrochemical treatment. Cotton is in fact one of the most heavily sprayed crops (8-10 times per season): 25% of the world’s insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides, and defoliants.) is sprayed on cotton. The intensive industrial crop production also depletes the soil which means, more agrochemicals in the form of fertilizers are needed to compensate.

In recent years, disease and insect-resistant Gene-manipulated varieties have been created, which are now taking over the original chemically dependent varieties. In the US, a huge proportion of cotton is now produced by GM varieties. Deceptively, these cotton varieties are hailed as environmentally friendly, because they supposedly do not need so many chemicals. However, trial plantings of GM cotton in India and Indonesia have failed to prove resistant to insects. Meanwhile, consumers are beginning to become more aware of these issues and are looking for eco-friendlier alternatives. Organic and fair trade cotton is now available, but have to compete against other natural fibers that are easier to produce without the chemicals.

See also: Cotton

Nettles

Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica)

The common stinging nettle is another traditional fiber plant, although most people only know it as a troublesome weed. Its long resilient fibers have long been used to make cloth and garments. But as a source of fiber, they have gone through several cycles of popularity. The last time nettle was ‘in fashion’ was during WWII, when cotton became scarce in Germany.

After the war, interest in nettles as a fiber plant has waned in favor of cheaper synthetic fibers. But like Hemp, nettles have also started to make a come back as people are looking for more natural textiles. While hemp and flax fibers are tougher and more hardwearing, nettles produce the finest quality yarn. Currently, Nettles are again under experimental cultivation in Germany. The plants are resilient enough not to need any chemical treatments or fertilizer. In fact, no chemicals at all are used in the processing and the end product is a very soft, silky textile that is immensely resilient to wear and tear.

Nettles thrive on nitrates and can be used to ‘clean’ over-fertilized land. However, most people, including many farmers, consider nettles a bothersome weed and are few willing to grow it. Yet, that might change once they ‘cotton on’ to the fact that under EU regulations it is the only crop permitted to grow on subsidized ‘fallow land’.

In an effort to increase yields, a team of Italian, Austrian and German researchers have joined forces in order to produce new, high-yield varieties of nettles and to come up with solutions that would make the retting process less time consuming and more efficient. Famous Italian fashion houses are ready to launch new lines of fine quality designer nettle knickers and other fashionable items – all they are waiting for are steady and sufficient supplies of nettle yarn.

See also: Stinging Nettles

Jute (Corchorus capsularis and C. olitorius) and Kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus)

These two members of the Mallow family produce a strong, but coarse fiber. Jute is mostly used for sacking and carpet backing. The fiber is not as strong as hemp or flax and is susceptible to rot. It can not be spun into a fine grade yarn and thus does not find use in the textile industry.

Kenaf, a close relative of Jute is mostly used in the manufacture of paper, although in Africa, where it is native, it is also used for making rope and rugs. It loves hot and humid climates, but is adaptable and will grow as far north as southern Illinois. However, in cooler climates, its seeds do not mature. Kenaf is a very viable and sustainable alternative to Pine used for paper production. Considering that every American consumes about six 30-year old pines in paper per year and the per-acre yield of Kenaf is 3-5 times higher than that of Pine, Kenaf is the obvious environmentally-friendly choice. Kenaf is resistant to most bugs and may be grown organically. It also takes less energy to pulp and does not require chlorine for bleaching. The quality of the paper produced from it is very high.

See also:

Jute

Kenaf

 kenaf-an ecological source for paper.pdf 

Ramie (Boehmeria nivea)

Ramie is also a member of the nettle family. It is sometimes called ‘the flax of the east’ as it is most common in parts of Russia and Eastern parts of Asia. When woven into fabric its qualities are much like flax in terms of luster and strength. It also creases easily and has a similarly smooth texture. Ramie textiles are particularly renowned for keeping their shape well, but it is not a very flexible fiber, which makes it prone to breaking, e.g. in crease-folds. Unlike flax, it takes well to dyes. Fine quality Ramie fabric has a silken appearance. It is usually blended with cotton to create mixed-material garments. Ramie’s disadvantage compared to other fiber plants is the fact that it needs to undergo a chemical process in order to remove a gummy substance from the fibers. On the other hand, it is extremely productive and can sustain between 3 and 6 harvests a year, depending on weather and growing conditions.

See also: Ramie

hemp
hemp rope

Hemp (Cannabis sativa)

A book could be written about the virtues of this invaluable plant that has served humanity for at least 7000 years. In fact, several excellent books have been written about it, but I will limit myself here to its value as a fiber plant. Hemp has the longest, toughest, and most resilient fibers of any plant, making it particularly useful for tough ropes and canvass that must withstand great pressures, wear and tear. Like Jute or Flax, Hemp is an annual plant. It is not fussy as regards growing conditions and actually, it benefits the soil. Until recently (even during WWII) it was widely cultivated throughout Europe, the United States, China, and India. However, since approximately the middle of the last century, it has come under fire because of its psychoactive properties. Cannabis (sativa var. indica) contains THC, a psychoactive resin. However, the fibers of this subspecies are too short, so it is never used for making yarn. Fiber hemp (Cannabis sativa) on the other hand, does not produce any significant amounts of THC. Yet, this confusion has been used to rationalize the suppression of commercial-scale hemp production. As a result, plastic and artificial fibers have proliferated – as we now know, to all our demise. At last, we are becoming more aware of the negative impact of plastics on the environment and it is high time that we switch to natural, sustainable and bio-degradable sources of fiber.

To extract the fibers, the stem, which can grow up to 4m tall, is stripped of all the leaves and branches. When planted closely together the individual plants don’t grow as high, but the resulting fibers are of a finer quality, better suited for making garments.

Hemp is an ideal fiber plant, not just for hard-wearing rope or material, (the first jeans were made from hemp), but also as a source of fiber pulp for the paper (the first dollar notes were printed on hemp paper). It is inexcusable that in this day and age, when deforestation is a massive threat to biodiversity and exacerbates global warming, forests, including old-growth forests, continue to be cut down for the sake of ‘throw-away’ commodities, such as paper and even toilet paper when hemp would be the logical alternative. Thankfully, Hemp is beginning to make a come-back.

See also: Hemp

coocnut

Coconut (Cocos nucifera)

Nobody knows exactly where Coconuts originated, but it is thought likely that they spread from the West Pacific. By now it has become a true world traveler that has colonized all hot, tropical coastal regions of the world. Coconuts can travel very long distances since they are resistant to saltwater. The waves carry them across the sea to distant shores.

Wherever they grow, Coconut trees have been revered as a source of food, oil, medicine, and fiber. Coconut fiber is derived from the husks of the nuts, which are harvested both green (unripe) and brown (mature). Both types are available throughout the year since each nut takes 12 months to mature and the tree flowers and fruits continuously up to 13 times a year. In Thailand and Malaysia harvesters have trained small monkeys to help them with the task of getting the nuts, a practice that is now considered unethical

The unripe green nuts provide a softer more pliable type of fiber than the brown, fully mature ones. Brown Coconut fiber is quite coarse. It lends itself to be used as a hard-wearing flooring material, upholstery, mattresses, brushes, and sacking. White coconut fiber is used for rope and cordage. Coconut fiber is the only natural fiber that is resistant to seawater.

See also: Coconut

Sisal

Sisal (Agave sisalana)

Sisal is a hard-wearing fiber derived from a species of Agave that is native to Central America and Mexico. Agave sisalana is a sterile hybrid, which suggests that it has long been used as a fiber plant in Central America. Its exact origin is not clear though Agaves are native to Central America. Its name derives from the port town of Sisal, in the Yucatan, from where it was first exported. Today it is grown not only in Mexico but also in China, Brazil, and Africa, with Tanzania being the world’s largest producer.

Agaves are succulent desert plants with long, fleshy, blue-green, sword-like leaves that grow in a rosette formation on a short stumpy stem. The fibrous sheath surrounding the inner xylem of the leaves yields the fibers. Sisal is not as resilient as other fibers and can deteriorate quickly during processing. The leaves are harvested by hand and are quickly decorticated as the leaf pulp is washed away. Sisal is ideally adapted to arid growing conditions. It is used for matting, rope, netting, or blended with wool to make carpets, etc.

See also: Agave sisalana (PROTA)

Outlook: future uses of fiber plants

While this article discusses fibers mostly in terms of textiles, a new and exciting use of natural fibers is emerging, in the automobile industry, of all places. Some of the leading car manufacturers are beginning to heed what Ford discovered almost a century ago – natural fibers can make a damn good car. They are not only used for the obvious – upholstery of seats and covers but also as filling materials and to replace other parts currently made from plastic or glass. A ‘bio’ plastic is already being produced from Kenaf and Hemp.

There is a lot of scope for utilizing sustainably produced natural fibers that could make a huge contribution to reducing our emissions and preserving forests. There are as yet unimagined and exciting possibilities in the world of natural fibers and I for one am certain that they will play a crucial part in readjusting the natural balance for a sustainable future.

Fly Agaric (Amanita Muscaria)

Fly Agaric (Amanita Muscaria)

Fly Agaric – a magical Mushroom

Bold and undeniably conspicuous, the bright red cap with its white flaky speckles gives this fungus away. Every child is familiar with the infamous ‘Fly Agaric’.

A familiar image in popular culture, it is known as the ‘Glückspilz’ (lucky mushroom) in Germany. It is one of the five quintessential symbols of good fortune, along with the pig, the 4-leaved clover, the chimney sweep, and horseshoes. Innumerable trinkets, variously cast in chocolate, marzipan, or plastic fill window displays, especially around New Year’s Eve.

Plaster-cast versions are also frequently found to decorate suburban lawns along with jolly old plaster-cast gnomes, smoking their plaster pipes. It is featured in innumerable children’s books illustrating innocent fairy tales. Like no other species, Fly Agaric symbolizes the magic of an enchanted forest with its magical groves. Everybody knows this is where fairies, gnomes, and witches dwell.

Fly Agaric in Mythology

Mythologies from around the world echo the enigma of the Fly Agaric. Everywhere it is seen as a semi-divine being and often it is associated with the mighty thunder gods and their cosmic fire. In India, for example, Fly Agaric is sacred to Agni, the god of fire. His devotees made sacrificial offerings of Fly Agaric while partaking of it as a sacrament. It is said to have helped them to commune with their god.

In Mayan dialects, Fly Agaric is known as ‘Kukulja’, which also means ‘thunder’. The Lacandon Maya call it ‘Eh kib lu’um’, which translates as ‘ the Light of the Earth‘ (Rätsch).

In parts of northern and Eastern Europe, it is sometimes called ‘Raven Bread’ in allusion to Woden’s companions. According to legend, the wise ravens were Woden’s constant companions. They would travel on his shoulders, whispering many a secret into his ears. Woden /Thor is a thunder-god. He is a wild, shamanic god of nature, who commands the elements. He gallops across the sky on his brave steed, Sleipnir, the eight-legged stallion, who runs swift as the wind and kicks up the storm clouds in his wake. As he gathers speed, foam forms at the horse’s mouth and drops to the earth. Magically, each drop of foam becomes a Fly Agaric.

In Western mythology, the Fly Agaric represents the archetypal mushroom – even people who know nothing about fungi recognize it at once. But, depending on their heritage, people are mostly conditioned to fear all mushrooms (a condition known as ’mycophobia’). Only the flavorless varieties found on supermarket shelves are believed to be edible. (This has changed a bit, in recent years, as Eastern Europeans, who love mushrooms, have brought their love of fungi with them as they migrated around Europe.

Description

Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria), is a gill-bearing toadstool, growing to between 5 -12cm tall. When young, it is covered by a white membranous veil, which rips as the stem pushes up and the bright red cap expands. The remains of the veil skirt the stem (ring) and also leave white, wart-like flakes on the cap.

(Caution: no white flecks is not a sure sign that whatever red-capped mushroom you may have found is NOT a Fly Agaric, since heavy rain can wash them off).

As the fungus matures the cap opens up like an umbrella, forming a depression around the center. Its red skin can easily be peeled off. The stem is bulbous at the base and discontinuous with the cap. The flesh is white and has no particular smell when fresh. Upon drying it develops an unpleasant musky-acrid smell, which, it has been claimed, can ward off flies.

This myth is supposed to explain the fungi’s name, but unfortunately, it is not true.

  • young fly agaric

Related Species

In North America, A. americana, a closely related species can be mistaken for the Fly Agaric. However, its’ cap tends to be more yellowy-orange. Less similar and more toxic is A. pantherina, the Panther Cap. Its cap tends to be more yellow-brownish and its stem more slender. All of these Amanita species are generally considered poisonous and even deadly, and several other deadly poisonous Amanitas, such as the ‘Death Cap’, also join their ranks.

Is Fly Agaric poisonous?

In 2016, the American Association of Poison Control recorded some 6000 cases where ingestion has lead to some intense symptoms. But only four of these cases were fatal.

But that does not mean that they are ‘safe’, or don’t produce some serious symptoms.

Symptoms include: ‘nausea and vomiting, somnolence, dizziness, hallucinations, dysphoria, delirium, ataxia, myoclonic movements, and seizures.’ (American Association of Poison Control)

Yet, Fly Agaric features strongly in mythology and ritual use around the world – particularly in Asia.

Chemistry:

Mushroom guide books mark Fly Agarics with the familiar warning symbol of the skull and bones next to its name. Yet, despite this reputation, evidence from around the globe suggests that in the past (and, in some places even to the present day) people have actually enjoyed a rather intimate relationship with this ‘very dangerous’ mushroom. Apparently, this is no ordinary, poisonous toadstool, but rather a powerful psychotropic entheogen with a very colorful history and folklore.

Modern research has revealed that the chemical make-up of Amanita muscaria is rather complex. Earlier chemists had mistakenly assumed that the psychoactive principle of Fly Agaric was to be found in a tropane alkaloid known as muscarine. This substance, related to a group of alkaloids present in other ‘Witches Herbs’, such as Henbane and Belladonna, has a very unpleasant impact on the CNS, including profuse salivation, lachrymation, and perspiration. However, its concentration in the mushroom is actually very low (approx. 0.0003%). Furthermore, it does not easily cross the blood/brain barrier and nor does it have any psychotropic effect – thus it is hardly a likely candidate for the principle involved in producing the mushroom’s reputed mind-altering properties.

It wasn’t until the mid-sixties that the true entheogenic compounds of Amanita muscaria were positively identified as ibotenic acid and muscimol, its decarboxylated derivative. The research concluded that the actual psychotropic effect is most likely produced by muscimol (Chilton, 1975) since 50-100 mg of ibotenic acid produces the same effects as 10-15 mg of muscimol. The symptoms of inebriation are characterized by muscle twitching, dizziness, visual distortions (macropsia and micropsia), and altered auditory perception. (Chilton, 1975).

fly agaric, different stages

Ethnobotany of Fly Agaric

The potency of any particular mushroom is subject to various environmental factors, such as seasonal variation, the weather, the phase of the moon, and the pH level of the soil. The Kamchadals, the native people of Kamchatka (northern Siberia), have a long and well-documented history of Fly Agaric use. They believe, that Fly Agarics that desiccate while still connected to the earth tend to produce a stronger psychotropic effect than those that are picked fresh and strung up to dry. They also claim that the smaller ones, whose bright red caps are still covered with many white spots, are said to be stronger than the larger ones with paler caps and fewer spots. Those picked in August are said to be the strongest. It has been suggested that a dose of 9 – 10 caps could be considered potentially lethal, although no specific data supports this claim. The individual constitution, weight, and size of the person ingesting them would influence the result. Apart from the environmental and physical factors, the mental condition also plays an important role. Case studies have shown that people who mistakenly ingested the mushroom, believing that it was highly dangerous and that their lives were thus in peril, reported much more severe symptoms of poisoning than those who had intentionally partaken of it but misjudged the dose (Ott 1976a).

Archaeological and linguistic evidence traces Fly-Agaric use back to at least some 3000-6000 years BCE. Some scholars believe that it may stretch even further into pre-history and that it may be the most archaic entheogen known to mankind.

It appears that Fly-Agaric was known throughout Siberia but not universally used. Some tribes never used it, while others only consumed it ritually in a spiritual context, or used it medicinally, ritually, or simply for entertainment purposes. But the custom is best documented for northeastern Siberia, wherein some communities it persists to this day.

Mircea Eliade, the world’s foremost authority on Shamanism, described Fly Agaric ceremonies among the various Siberian tribes. However, colored by his own attitudes, he considered such practices (and for that matter any ceremonial use of psychotropic plants) as a decadent trend. (Eliade ‘Shamanism’ 1951) Many modern scholars disagree with his point of view, which sharply contrasts with the actual historical evidence (Rutledge). However, the casual use of Entheogens does seem to be a more modern development. Where this is practiced, the ritual use of Fly Agaric is gradually declining and is increasingly replaced by a more recent introduction: Vodka.

Fly Agaric Use in North-Eastern Siberia

However, Siberian shamans consider Fly Agaric the essence of their mysteries. It is their gateway to the experience of divine ecstasy, a trance-like state that enables them to fly into the world of their gods, battle with demons, and to gain fantastic visions. And it is this magical flight that the common name ‘Fly’- Agaric’ alludes to, not, as has often been suggested, its alleged power to ward off flies.

During the latter part of the 19th century, the German ethnologist J. Enderli spent 2 years among the Chukchee and Koryaks of Eastern Siberia. (Zwei Jahre bei den Tschuktschen und Korjaken). During his stay, he had the opportunity to witness first-hand one of these much-fabled, mushroom induced trance sessions. According to his report, the task of preparing the dried mushrooms fell to the women, who usually did not consume them themselves.

After selecting a few suitable specimens they began to chew them thoroughly so as to make them pliable and moist. They then took them out of their mouths, rolled them into sausage shapes, and gave them to the two men, who proceeded to place them deep down their throats to swallow them whole. After the fourth mushroom had been ingested in this manner the first effects began to show. The men started to tremble and twitch as though they had lost control of their muscles. Their eyes took on a wild glow, quite unlike the glazed look of alcohol inebriation, although the men apparently remained fully conscious throughout this phase.

The agitation increased until they suddenly fell into a trance-state and began to sing monotonously in low voices. Gradually their chanting became louder and wilder till they had worked themselves into a frenzy, their eyes glaring wildly, shouting incomprehensible words, and both of them going quite literally ‘berserk’. They demanded their (ritual) drums, which the women brought immediately. At once they began a wild, unbelievably frenetic dance accompanied by equally wild and ear-shattering drumming, yelling and singing, while both men ran about the yurt in a manic fury which left nothing untouched. Everything was thrown about, kicked over, and turned upside down until the place was in a state of total chaos. Eventually, almost as if struck dead, both of them collapsed exhausted and fell into a deep sleep.

This phase is the most important aspect of this exhausting ritual. It is in this trance-like sleep that the gateway to the ‘Other-World’ is opened, and the shaman experiences vivid, even lucid dreams and ecstatic visions, often of a strong sexual and sensual nature. In this state, he can diagnose the causes of diseases, determine the whereabouts of lost objects, retrieve lost souls, fight with demonic forces, or gleam visions of things to come. This otherworldly state, however, does not last long. After about half an hour of sleep, the shaman briefly awakes to full consciousness, but soon the inebriation sets in once more and continues in gradually weakening cycles of excitement, frenzy, exhaustion, and sleep.

The most curious aspect of this ritual is the fact that the inebriating power of the mushroom is not destroyed by normal metabolic processes but instead is passed into the urine almost without diminishing its effect. This has given cause to a rather unsavory habit described by some of the early ethnologists recounting their field experiences in Siberia:

‘Those who had partaken of the mushroom would collect their own urine and without a moment’s hesitation drink the liquid down, with the result of reinforcing the inebriation and starting the cycle all over once more. Sometimes the urine was saved in a special vessel for a later occasion or even shared with others who might not have been able to afford the mushrooms for themselves. (The rate of exchange in areas where it is not common is one reindeer per dried mushroom cap!) Even after passing through the body in this form substantial amounts of muscimol will again be passed into the urine unchanged. Thus it is said that the same mushroom can be ‘recycled’ 6-8 times.

Macropsia and Micropsia

During the phases of frenzy, the inebriated person feels tremendously strong. They are also affected by what is known as ‘macropsia’, or micropsia, a visual distortion that lets objects appear much larger or much smaller than they really are. Thus a blade of grass might seem as large as a tree trunk or a small hole can turn into the entrance of a cave. Many unbelievable feats of strength and endurance have been accomplished under the influence of Fly Agaric. One man reportedly carried a 120-pound load for 10 miles without stopping, something he could never have done under normal circumstances. Some historians have proposed that the notorious raids of the Vikings/Norse men may have been carried out under the influence, turning them literally into ‘Berserkers’ with inhuman strength. However, there is no concrete evidence to support this theory.

(It is interesting to note that Lewis Caroll in his classic tale, Alice in Wonderland, lets his heroine encounter the magic mushroom at the gateway between solid and lucid realities: It is the abode of the stoned caterpillar, who explains some of the oddities of Wonderland to the confused Alice. She had already experienced the wondrous effects of ‘macropsia’, and micropsia, which are typical symptoms of Fly Agaric inebriation.

alice in wonderland

Other Methods of Preparation

The Koryak prepared the mushroom in several different ways. The most common one is described above.

Boiling:

They also occasionally boiled the fungi to make a mushroom soup. This method is said to reduce its potency. For an intoxicating effect more mushrooms would thus be needed.

Drying:

Sometimes dried mushrooms were soaked in distilled Bilberry juice – obviously a fairly modern method since distillation only reached Siberia in the 1500s.

Synergistic blending with Willow-Herb

Occasionally they were mixed with the juice of Willow-Herb.

To my knowledge, there has not been any research to investigate the possible synergistic action of this combination.

Medicinal use:

Medicinally, Fly Agaric was used for ‘psychophysical fatigue’ and for bites of venomous snakes. (Saar, 1991) It was also applied externally to treat joint ailments (Moskalenko, 1987). In Afghanistan, a smoking mixture containing Fly Agaric, known as tshashm baskon (‘eye opener’) is used for psychosis (Mochtar & Geerken, 1979). In Western medicine, Fly Agaric serves as a well-known homeopathic remedy, that is used for tic bites, epilepsy, and depression, and in conjunction with the homeopathic tincture of Mandrake, is used to treat Parkinson disease. (Villers & Thümen 1893, Waldschmidt 1992).

Fly Agaric Use in Western Cultures

Since the 1960s, the casual and experimental use of Fly Agaric in Western cultures has steadily increased. However, it is said that the effects of Amanita species found in North America and Central Europe are not equal to those found in Siberia. It is often claimed, (but not proven), that the North American and European species tend to be more nauseating and not as lucid as their Siberian cousins. It is unlikely that Fly Agaric will ever become popular as a recreational drug among casual thrill-seekers, as the inebriation is often accompanied by intense nausea and vomiting (some people have reported no other effect from their experiments).

While shamanic beliefs tend to regard vomiting as a way to cleanse the body of impurities, thus preparing it for possession by gods or spiritual beings, casual users tend to see vomiting merely as a rather unpleasant side-effect. Furthermore, Fly Agaric inebriation results in a severe hangover the following day, which also makes it a lot less appealing to casual users.

Those who have conducted self-experiments, often report visions of gnomes, not unlike those found in the suburban gardens mentioned above. These reports echo mushroom lore from Siberia, which features ‘mushroom-men’. They are depicted as small stocky, sometimes neckless beings, who move swiftly and guide the shaman on his journey to the ‘Other-World’.

This curious lore is substantiated by a number of Siberian cliff drawings that strongly resemble descriptions of these mushroom-men. The number of these little men that appear in the visions is said to correspond with the number of mushrooms consumed. The Yurak shamans always take 2 ½ mushrooms, who, they say, run ahead along convoluted paths. The shaman can only keep up with them because the ‘half-man’ runs more slowly.

gnome and fly agaric house

Gordon Wasson

It would be neglectful not to mention Gordon Wasson in any discussion of ethnomycology, as he and his wife have probably done more to stimulate research in this field than anybody else. In the course of their extensive research into the folklore and folk-uses of fungi, they came upon some very interesting findings, which lead them to believe that many of the mycophobic attitudes present today can be attributed to remnants of an ancient mushroom cult. According to their theory, subsequent layers of political and religious rulers have demonized the once ‘tabooed’ sacraments and holy icons of this cult (the mushrooms). Originally, they were deemed ‘taboo’ as their ritual use was considered a privilege of the ruling / religious class.

At the time, the academic establishment did not welcome such suggestions and point-blank rejected many of their findings. But, since they were amateurs with a passion for the fungi, rather than the world of Academia, they persisted. Eventually, their research did attract some attention and they began to collaborate with Albert Hoffman, who had discovered LSD. It is predominantly due to the Wasson’s pioneering work that the idea of psychotropic substance use (and in particular, psychotropic mushrooms) as an integral part of magico-religious practices among ‘primitive’ cultures has eventually gained widespread acceptance.

Wasson conducted extensive research into the ‘Rig Veda’, a collection of sacred hymns composed by the Indo-Aryan peoples, who swept down into the Indus valley of India some 3500 years ago. The ‘Rig Veda’ is one of the most ancient sacred texts known to humankind and it is full of references to sacred and medicinal plants. Many of them have been proven difficult to identify, however. One such plant or substance is known as ‘Soma’.

More than one hundred verses of the Rig Veda celebrate and sing its praises, describing its potent powers and alluding to its divine origin. Scholars today generally accept that Soma is probably some kind of psychotropic plant, although they still argue over its precise botanical identity.

Unfortunately, the authors of the ‘Rig Veda’ omit to mention any botanical details regarding its leaves, flowers, or fruit. Like most religious texts, the hymns are written in a rather poetic language, lacking a concrete description. Instead, it alludes to Soma as ‘the one-legged’, ‘thunder born’, and similar terms. Wasson concluded that this should be read as an allusion to its fungal nature. He proposed that Soma was in fact Fly Agaric. He argued that surely if the Soma plant did display ‘mighty roots’ or ‘sweetly smelling flowers’ or any other such noteworthy features, the authors of the ‘Rig Veda’ would no doubt have given them a poetic line or two. But mushrooms, of course, do not have such features, which would explain why there is no mention of them. The absence of such a description, he argues, in itself provides a strong hint.

Wasson studied the ‘Rig Veda’ in great detail and came up with a number of other supporting factors for his theory, which he published in his book ‘Soma’ in 1968. However, most of the scientific community at the time never quite accepted his proposals. Today, scholars are split into two camps, those who support Wasson’s’ findings, and those who are still doubtful and continue to search for an alternative explanation.

Certainly, it is challenging to translate and interpret ancient texts such as the Rig Veda, and be certain of its original meaning, beyond doubt. However, one has to ask the question of how and why such an obviously important substance could have been ‘lost’? The only plausible answer lends support to the Wasson camp: the Aryan people, who came from the north, brought with them only the cultural memory of this magical substance, but not the actual plant. It is impossible to cultivate Fly Agaric, and since it does not occur naturally in the Indus valley, it is likely that it gradually passed into the mythical realm. If one accepts the fungal nature of Soma, then Fly Agaric really emerges as the most logical choice, despite the fact that other psychotropic mushrooms are native to the homelands of the Indo-Aryan people. The use of these other species is not as widespread and common, and hardly anything is known about them, to this day.

However, the identity of Soma remains a mystery.  Who really knows what people might have known and used in the distant past? Their knowledge has passed into oblivion. For all we know today, their sacred Soma – fungus or not, may even have long since become extinct.

WARNING:

Fly Agaric is a powerful fungus, whose effects can be extremely variable and dangerous in the hands of fools. Self-experimentation is not recommended. In particular, all amanita species with a white or greenish cap should be avoided, as these are definitely very deadly. The information provided in this article is intended for educational purposes only, and should not be taken as medical advice. The author takes no responsibility for any events that may occur as a result of self-experimentation.

Samhain

Samhain

At Samhain, the Goddess retreats below the earth to join her dark lover in the Underworld. Life withdraws and the landscape turns bleak, cold, and grey. There are no more fruit or flowers and the birds have left to journey south. We mark this time of death by remembering and honoring those who have gone before us. Death is but a stage on the wheel of life. Far below the ground the Goddess regenerates her powers, sheds her old cloak, and falls into a deep meditation. We face the darkness of the cold season when the Sun has little power left to warm us.

This is a good time to remember that life and death are aspects of the same eternal cycle. One cannot exist without the other. As the light needs the darkness, the creative spirit needs its periods of rest and restoration. This is a time for reflection and reminiscence, and for gathering our inner strength in contemplation – for soon the wheel of the year will turn and rise again.

Pumpkins (Curcubita sp)

Pumpkins (Curcubita sp)

Gourds, Pumpkins, and Winter Squash

Since it is nearly Halloween I thought I’d write a post about Pumpkins – predictable I know, but nonetheless fascinating. Pumpkin, a member of the gourd family, belongs to a huge group of cultivars that are all variations of the winter squash. They come in a truly amazing range of shapes, colors, and sizes. Talking about size – some growers have developed the strange ambition: who can grow the BIGGEST Pumpkin of them all? The jury is still out, but growers have already managed to produce some pumpkins of absurd, even obscene sizes. So far, the largest Giant Pumpkin (Cucurbita maxima) ever reported is said to have weighed more than a ton! Other common cultivars are Cucurbita pepo (e.g. Acorn and Halloween type squash) and Cucurbita moschata (e.g. Butternut squash).

The gourd family is native to the Americas. Wild members were used as long as 10 000 years ago, and the family was one of the first to be domesticated. Various types of squash and gourds have been cultivated in Central America since about 7500 – 5000 BC!

They have never lost their appeal. On the contrary. New forms have been developed and Pumpkins, Squash, and Co. have now spread around the globe.

pumpkin varieties

Distribution:

Archeobotanist have found the earliest evidence of Pumpkin use in the Oaxaca region of  Mexico, but its native range comprises both, the northeastern corner of Mexico and the southwestern United States.

What’s in a name?

In the US and the UK the term ‘Pumpkin’, which seems to have derived from a Native American word for ‘a big round fruit’, only refers to the familiar round orange winter squash best known as Halloween decorations. But in New Zealand, the word is used for all types of winter squash.

The German word ‘Kürbis’ derives from the scientific name of the family of ‘Cucurbita’.

Food use

Botanically, Pumpkins are classified as ‘berries’, but no-one except botanists would think of them that way. Edible Pumpkins are mostly grown for the orange fruit flesh, which is incredibly versatile and can be used in countless sweet and savory dishes, most famous among them, Pumpkin pie! But the seeds are also edible and yield an edible and deliciously nutty oil that is rich in vitamin E and linoleic acid. It is not suitable for cooking, as its delicate constituents are destroyed at high temperatures, but it is excellent for adding an extra flavor dimension to soups and salads.

Even the flowers are edible. Stuffed and fried they are a delicacy.

pumpkin pie

Nutrition

It may come as a surprise that pumpkin is quite low in carbohydrates – the caloric value is 66% less than that of potatoes. Nutritionally, pumpkin scores high in beta carotene, the precursor of vitamin A that is so important for the immune system. It also contains pectin, a type of fibre that not only promotes a sense of satiety but also regulates the flow of sugars in the GI tract after a meal. It is thus a very beneficial food for people with metabolic issues. However, it is difficult to predict exactly how much pectin will be present in any particular pumpkin. The content level varies depending on the time of harvest as well as the method of preparation.

Pumpkin also contains vitamin C, B2, and B6. But, amazingly, it has a water content of 92%!

Medicinal use

Pumpkin is a therapeutic food that can boost the immune system and soothes kidney and bladder conditions. The seeds are rich in zinc which boosts the immune system. They are also indicated as a supportive nutritional remedy in the treatment of enlarged prostate glands. The Aztecs used the seeds as a remedy to expel worms, a use that has been adopted by western herbalists.

Pumpkin customs: Halloween decorations

Halloween decorations at the London Dungeon

 

Traditionally, the Halloween pumpkin was a Turnip. I kid you not! It was once a relatively local folk custom in Ireland to carve a Turnip at Halloween. The effigy was known as Jack-o-lantern, which has its origin in an Irish folk tale about a stingy guy called Jack (Stingy Jack, actually)

The Tale of Stingy Jack

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, Stingy Jack had some drinks with the devil but did not have the money to pay for them. There must be some pretty stupid devils in Ireland – Jack manages to persuade this devil to change himself into a coin so he could pay for the drinks. But as soon as the devil obliged him Stingy Jack decided to keep the coin instead! He put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, thus preventing the devil to change back into his original form.

Eventually, he made a deal with the coin. He freed him on the condition that he would leave him alone and not bother him for a year and a day, not claim his soul, should he die in the meantime. After a year and a day had passed the devil returned and stupidly allowed himself to be tricked again. This time Jack had sent him up a tree to pick a fruit and while he was up there, had carved a cross into the bark. Thus the devil was stuck again. Jack demanded that he would leave him alone again for a further 10 years.

But Jack did not live that long. Soon after the second episode with the devil he died. But despite his posturing with the cross and all, God was not pleased with his conduct and refused entry to heaven on account of his dishonesty. This was a bit of an unforeseen dilemma for Jack, since the devil, still upset with him for tricking him and being mean, also refused him entry to hell. Besides, he had given him his word that he would not claim his soul for 10 years.

Thus, the devil sent Jack off with only a piece of coal to keep him warm and to light his way through the twilight zone. To carry the coal Jack carved out a Turnip to safeguard his chunk of coal, and to this day he roams the land as the lost soul known as Jack O’Lantern.

When the Irish arrived in the United States they brought their story of Jack O’Lantern and their custom of carving the Turnip with them. When they came across the Pumpkin they were delighted as Pumpkins are much easier to carve than Turnips! And, as they say, the rest is history.

Remembering the dead, honoring the spirits

This is the most common story regarding the use of pumpkins at Halloween. But in fact, the real story is much older. In Celtic Ireland, the custom of the carved out Turnip root far predates this Christianized tale. Originally, it is related to the Celtic Festival of Samhain (November 1st), which marks the end of the growing season. At this time, the veil between the worlds is said to be thin and spirits of the deceased leave the Other World to roam among us and to beg for food. It was customary to put out a little food and drink for these spirits and a carved-out Turnip with a candle placed inside was hung up so they could find their way. In turn, the spirits blessed the souls of those who provided for them. The day that marked the occasion later became known as ‘All- Hallows Eve’, which in time morphed into ‘Halloween’.

Interestingly, a similar custom is practiced in Mexico, where November 1st is celebrated as ‘El Dia de los Muertos’ – the day of the dead, which combines Catholic elements (All Saints and All Souls day) with pre-Columbian Aztec traditions. It is a day to remember the dead and families gather in cemeteries to make offerings to their departed relatives. Food offerings, including candied Pumpkins, are an important part of the celebrations, as are the sugar skulls and candles are placed on their graves.

As endearing as these ancient traditions of remembering the dead are, the accompanying waste of food is truly shocking. As the Guardian reports, a staggering 12.76 million pumpkins will be purchased, carved up, and then binned over Halloween.

That’s scary!

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