Mushroom with a View

The Wild Kindness: A Psilocybin Odyssey BY Bett Williams. New York: Dottir Press. 280 pages. $19.
Bett Williams. Photo: Beth Hill

If mushrooms are having a moment, psilocybin mushrooms are having their own red-carpeted star turn. Multiple double-blind studies conducted at Johns Hopkins University, which has its own Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, have shown how psilocybin mushrooms, administered in hours-long, therapist-guided sessions (with a playlist), have helped those with depression, various types addiction, fear of death. Microdosing is widespread, and psilocybin mushrooms have been decriminalized in Oregon and various cities around the country. Bett Williams recounts her own “psilocybin odyssey” in her new memoir, The Wild Kindness.

The field of psychedelics is dominated by men, notes Williams, and she wanted to add her own contribution. She doesn’t believe mushrooms require mediation by therapists. The clinical is out, and the starry-skied walkabout is in. Williams’s advice for would-be psychonauts: ingest “three to five grams of dried psilocybin mushrooms . . . to achieve clear-sightedness. Keep your wits and don’t do anything stupid. When you land solidly back to earth, you will have had the only psychedelic experience that really matters—the one that is your own.”

The Wild Kindness, set primarily in rural New Mexico, is a cabinet of wonders with desert hallucinations (“I saw a vivid, furry, white dinosaur face”), a fan letter to Charles M. Schultz, multiple conversations with mushrooms, an outdoor tub, mistakes in love, an angry Chihuahua. It’s hard to pinpoint what Williams has created—an electric travelogue full of profound, tender hijinks with a Stetson-wearing guide; maybe Queer Western Nouveau, with literary storytelling and big New Mexican views. For Bookforum, I emailed with Williams, and we talked about wild fungi, telling a story in a single sentence, and “a poet’s view of the world.”

Psychedelics, especially when used in therapist-guided trips, have hit the mainstream, thanks, in part, to Paul Stamets’s work and Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind. You say in The Wild Kindness that the mushroom is the therapist.

Right, as I wrote: “It is not in the nature of the Western psyche to give such power directly to a plant, let alone an unruly fungus. We want babysitters, esoteric prophets, shamans, and scientists to act as gatekeepers in the realm of the incomprehensible.” Approaching the mushrooms on their own terms without a mediator was guided by what I’ve picked up from herbalist traditions—or maybe it’s simply an instinct as old as time. Whatever it was, it worked. The mushrooms have surpassed any other technique or technology of inquiry and healing I have ever encountered. A big part of the efficacy of their power, for me at least, comes from surrendering to a nonhuman entity.

New Mexico—with its blue skies, arroyos, coyotes, and mining towns—plays a glorious, co-starring role in your memoir. How does the landscape shape your work?

The landscape has always been the igniting spark in all my writing. My queer coming-of-age novel, Girl Walking Backwards, is my love letter to Santa Barbara and the sea. In The Wild Kindness, a desert mountain literally turns into a palette of hieroglyphic language during a mushroom trip. I lament that the mountain “spoke to me and I did not answer back.” Mushrooms amplify an awareness that we exist in an ecosystem of complex and constant energy exchange. Writing about the landscape is how I answer back. What’s great about New Mexico is that the high-desert palette is limited, only two or three different kinds of trees around, etc., so it’s easier to convey with accuracy, to write it into hallucinatory being-ness.

The Wild Kindness feels like an invitation to readers to also go on “a psilocybin odyssey,” to wander through the juniper spotting cartoon dwarves or white ancient, glowing, tendrilled beings with you and your high AF pals (“Okay, you guy. . . . Um. Nerk.”) How do you create such an immersive experience?

To write about the psychedelic experience is to accept failure at the get-go. Language simply is ill-equipped, period. In accepting that, I was able to explore how far I could push language towards the amorphous concept of the psychedelic. On every mushroom trip, I am scanning where language lives in an experience. I’m taking notes. Stanislav Grof describes the psychedelic as an “unspecific amplifier.” Suddenly everything has resonance without the perceptual hierarchy we put on things—ultimately a poet’s view of the world. For a while I blamed my writer’s block on the fact that the only writers I hung out with were poets. It was messing with my prose style. The framework of the psychedelic, attending to detail like a reporter or journalist—something I have some confidence in—helped me write prose that approached the resonance I love so much in poetry.

Your mushroom ceremony—burning copal and cedar and making an offering of tobacco—was influenced by the curandera María Sabina. How does this practice affect your experiences?

The Mazatec are one of the only cultures that have practiced mushroom ceremonies for hundreds of years, so it made sense to pay attention to how María Sabina was doing it. One recognizes a reciprocity between human beings, culture, and the ecosystem, expressed through offerings, songs, prayers, and ritual—a constant conversation. I was intuitively bringing this worldview to the mushroom experience anyway, but studying María Sabina’s veladas and watching the documentary about her by Nicholas Echevaria countless times helped ground my practice at the beginning. I didn’t borrow from or imitate the ceremonies, I just trusted that what I had been doing all along since I was young, burning juniper, offering tobacco, keeping a fire or an altar in a ritualistic way, was a good place to start. Keep it simple, keep it clean, the mushrooms say. Being that the psychedelic both collapses language and reinvents it in a hyper-realm, ritual is often a more effective energy exchange than words or introspective thought forms. I light some juniper from a tree outside my house and a whole lot of stuff happens. It’s mysterious and wild.

So many standout lines beg to be reread. For example: “[A friend] pointed out the adobe across the street with a walled-in yard and an obsessive-compulsive Great Pyrenees that had a fetish for toy dolls, which he would bury and dig up and place somewhere different and then dig up again and repeat.” A short story unto itself! What goes into the writing of multiple transportive sentences?

So true, that could have been a whole chapter! In fact, I think it was at some point. I owe my ability to wrangle a tangle of details into a minimalist sentence to the writers Dennis Cooper, Charles Bowden, and Larry Fondation. The truest thing is often the most transportive, especially when left on its own without adding a shine.

Will you talk about “No Cures, Only Alchemy”?

It’s the name of the podcast I do with my partner Beth Hill. It’s also a core concept in the book, a theology of sorts. We are constantly being sold remedies, everything from the benefits of turmeric to microdosing to worldviews built upon self-care and the healing of trauma. This commerce is dependent on our being always in a state of sickness and imbalance. It’s been my observation that everything works for a while until it doesn’t. It’s a concept embraced by Alcoholics Anonymous that leads to an understanding that God, the great mystery, whatever you want to call it, is the only thing that really works in the end. Alchemy is about the constant state of flux at the core of molecular reality. Every outcome is dependent on relationships and timing. I’m as susceptible to hopping on the latest cure-all fad as anyone, but I’ve watched my own cycles of success dissolving back into the same old baseline, regroup and repeat, too many times not to be onto my own bullshit. The deeper work of the soul is a lifelong conversation with the nature of reality itself.

Karen Schechner is an editor at Kirkus Reviews and a member of the New York Mycological Society. She lives in South Salem, New York, with her wife and their two dogs.