The Rainbow Connection – Talking Mushrooms With Damien Pack

Editor’s Note:

I am quite proud of Crazy About Mushrooms, the radio documentary I produced about mushrooms and the people who love them (click here to stream the audio, if you so wish. It’s an hour-long piece chock full of mushroom lore as told by some of the top experts in the field of mycology). All throughout the time I was traveling around the country gathering interviews for the project, I enjoyed good fortune on many occasions and I cannot simply chalk it all up to chance. The whole journey was one of those rare occasions where things just seem to fall into place and happen exactly as they need to with little fretting and fussing required (this did not apply to the production phase of the project, I assure you!).

Amanita pantherina
The panther amanita, Amanita pantherina. This relative of the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) is very common on the Pacific north coast. ccfarmer. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

What follows is a retrospective on my favorite part of the trip, my meeting with Damien Pack, a very skilled and passionate mushroom cultivator who was, coincidentally, the first mycophile I ever met. I will surely write more about my interview with Damien in future posts, because it was one of the longest, most entertaining and enlightening conversations about mycology I’ve ever had. If you’re in the mood for a story about a colorful character who turned me onto mushrooms and mycology, read onward!

Yours in Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Damien Pack, Mycophile Extraordinaire!

One of my favorite memories from my radio documentary journey was driving up  the north coast on Highway 101 to Arcata, CA to visit Damien Pack. Highway 101 is a mushroom-lover’s paradise, but I really had not planned on taking that route north to Washington state after my California adventure. I had instead intended to take the shorter but far less scenic I-5, so I could get back to Olympia and my family’s home in time for our annual Thanksgathering. However, a snow storm blew in off the Pacific and the passes around Mt. Shasta and Ashland became ice-bound. Determined to get home for the holiday, I decided to drive up Hwy. 101, which winds through the Coastal Range and along the Pacific Coast, through the Redwoods and past the mountains, whereupon I planned to cut across to the Willamette Valley. This route also afforded me the opportunity to visit Damien, the first mushroom nut I ever met.

Damien and I encountered each other for the first time in Olympia, WA, right before the National Rainbow Gathering in Idaho. A long-time friend of my then-boyfriend Jason, Damien was organizing a whole crew of folks to drive from Olympia to the Gathering, which was being held in the wilderness outside Boise. Jason was driving out from Virginia, and I arrived in Olympia before he did on account of a storm that held Jason up overnight. Although he didn’t know me from Adam, Damien was extremely welcoming from the moment he met me at the airport, and it was through his hospitality that I first dipped my toes in the myco-pool.

This was before the age of cell phones, and Jason offered me three semi-useless facts that would help me identify Damien at the airport:

  1. Damien is shorter him. Not all that helpful, considering Jason is 6’6”.
  2. Damien has dreadlocks. Again not helpful, since I was flying into the Seattle airport, and an abundance of dread-headed Washingtonians are to be expected.
  3. Damien’s really crazy about mushrooms.

Having received this information, I spent a good bit of time on the plane fretting that I would not be able to recognize Damien at the airport. How can you tell that someone’s crazy about mushrooms?! I asked myself. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried one bit. After deplaning and riding the escalator down to the arrivals area, I saw a grinsome, impish young man with a head full of dreadlocks standing near the baggage claim holding a little sign with my name on it, surrounded with hand-drawn, brightly colored fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) mushrooms. I said to myself, Ah hah! I bet that’s this Damien fellow. I guess you CAN tell when somebody’s crazy about mushrooms after all!

Anyway, the following day Damien let me tag along to work with him. At the time, he was the Growing Room Manager at Fungi Perfecti, Paul Stamets’s mushroom farm and research facility in Olympia.

It was a lovely July morning when we set out for Fungi Perfecti, and as we harvested and trimmed shiitake and maitake mushrooms for market, Damien popped in a cassette of a Terrence McKenna lecture. I had never even heard of McKenna before, and it was a rich new layer of my experience that day. We returned to Damien’s home in Olympia and feasted on maitake that night (my first taste of Grifola frondosa, a great edible mushroom I’ve got quite a taste for to this day), and it was one of the most flavorful meals I’ve ever had.

Arcata redwoods
A redwood grove near Arcata, California. Photo by Daderot. Public Domain photograph.

It seemed fitting and apropos to go see Damien right at the end of my journey to meet and interview the mushroom people.

When I first met Damien, I was young and oblivious to the enchantment of fungi, and I must confess that I didn’t really grasp a lot of what he told me about mushrooms at the time. However, at the end of my recording project I had heard a lot and learned a ton, and appreciated the fungi much more than ever before. To go back to speak with the person who started it all, who planted a spore of mycological curiosity in my brain to begin with, seemed like the right thing to do. And besides, the weather had dictated my path right to Damien’s doorstep.

The drive from Ukiah to Arcata was spectacular. I intentionally drank a ton of water and coffee, so I had an excuse to stop frequently and step into the woods for micro-mushroom-hunts. I found mushrooms everywhere: white chanterelles, golden chanterelles, a single candy cap (which became a maple-scented car freshener in later days), bellybutton hedgehogs, several tremendous specimens of  Suillus luteus, and loads of other things besides. The only place I stopped where I did not find mushrooms was the aptly named Mt. Humbug State Park.

As Highway 101 heads north, it veers west toward the Pacific Ocean. As I descended into the coastal flats outside Eureka and Arcata, I switched on KMUD, Redwood Community Radio and Tom Waits filled the car with his scratchy, blue-smoke voice. I love Tom Waits so obviously I was jazzed and kept the radio on, glad to take a short break from reviewing audio files of the dozens of interviews I had conducted during the preceding months.

As the song ended and the pine and redwood gave way to grassy slopes along the road, I started to spot massive fruitings of red mushrooms. At first, I simply dismissed them, assuming they were red Russula mushrooms, a genus that is very common and often too peppery-spicy to eat. However, as I zoomed by more patches of mushrooms I noticed a distinctive trait: the caps were coated in white patches of universal veil tissue, meaning these mushrooms emerged from egg-like protective sacs that burst open when the mushroom expands, leaving flecks of white on the cap.

The fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria. One of the world's most striking mushrooms, fly agarics are also packed with psychoactive compounds. Flemming Christiansen. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.
The fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria. One of the world’s most striking mushrooms, fly agarics are also packed with psychoactive compounds. Photo by Flemming Christiansen. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

It also meant that these mushrooms had to be fly agarics (Amanita muscaria), one of the quintessential magic mushrooms. Some people believe that Soma, the divine plant used by the gods in the Rg Veda, is the fly agaric.

Other folks think that Santa Claus was inspired by the fly agaric, because reindeer love to eat it and its red-and-white coloration is so cheerful it conjures up all sorts of festive feelings. One thing we know for sure is that Koryak tribesmen on the high steppes and windswept plains of Siberia used these entheogenic and intoxicating mushrooms in religious ceremonies.

They’re also beautiful mushrooms. Sort of like the smartly dressed, leggy redhead of the mushroom world. I must confess, when I find them in the wild I sometimes collect them just so I can take them home and admire them, even though I have no interest in the psychoactive experience that eating these mushrooms can trigger. I was driving through a literal forest of them, groves of crimson and white fungi standing in stark contrast to the green grass along the highway.

At that moment, Tom Waits finished his tune and the next track began with a very familiar phrase on the banjo that flooded my head with childhood memories of a camera slow panning through a swamp, alighting on a very special frog named Kermit.

The song, The Rainbow Connection, is sweet–both optimistic and a little melancholy. I have always loved the Muppets, and Kermit is my favorite male lead in American film. However, I had not listened to the Rainbow Connection closely in many years. As I whizzed through the mushroom festooned landscape, the lyrics took on new life for me, leaving me deeply moved, finally understanding why it was that I had decided to pursue this deeper understanding of the story that mushrooms tell us about nature, the universe, and ultimately, ourselves.

Why are there so many songs about rainbows
And what’s on the other side?
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
And rainbows have nothing to hide.
So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it
I know they’re wrong, wait and see.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

Kermit the frog
Kermit the Frog. A bon vivant, frog-about-town, whose influence in my life cannot be measured. Photo by Kevin Burkett. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

Who said that every wish would be heard and answered
when wished on the morning star?
Somebody thought of that
and someone believed it,
and look what it’s done so far.
What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing?
And what do we think we might see?
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection,
the lovers, the dreamers and me.

All of us under its spell,
we know that it’s probably magic…

Have you been half asleep
and have you heard voices?
I’ve heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound that calls the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same.
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it.
It’s something that I’m supposed to be.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection,
the lovers, the dreamers and me.

Thanks, Kermie!

As night fell and I swept past the Amanita muscaria forest to Damien’s home, I was greeted with the sincere warmth that I had come to know on that first trip to Olympia.

Damien was one of those interviewees who insisted on dinner first, offered me some space in his dehydrator for some exceptionally cool mushrooms I’d found that day, and then regaled me with hours of mushroom stories, some deep and some silly. In the future, you can expect transcripts of some of these amazing tales coupled with the original audio, because Damien has that rare gift of storytelling that’s entirely too good not to share.


Ask a question or share your mushroom story!