Published in 2009, ‘Mushroom Magick: A Visionary Field Guide’ by American illustrator and artist Arik Roper is an art book featuring watercolour paintings of various species of psychedelic (and a few non-psychedelic) mushrooms. The book also contains contributions – or “field notes” if one is to go by the front cover – from authors Daniel Pinchbeck and Erik Davis. In addition, veteran mycologist Gary Lincoff provides valuable background information on many of the mushrooms that are presented in the book.
Thoroughly designed with a hardcover binding, Mushroom Magick is a fascinating and at first glance somewhat peculiar book. Its subheading, A Visionary Field Guide, goes a long way in explaining its content. Roper’s paintings are clearly artistic and subjective. Rather than being precise scientific illustrations aspiring to objectivity, many of the images seem to depict visions that may occur after ingesting psychedelic mushrooms. For example, several of the paintings include what appear to be mysterious fog and strangely shaped clouds, occasionally intersected with lightning.
In fact, many of the paintings in Mushroom Magick are fine examples of psychedelic art. Obviously the vivid colours – the choice of which are sometimes rather unusual and not what the mushrooms look like in their natural habitat – add a hallucinatory dimension to the paintings. But there are other factors at play as well. One is the use of unexpected perspectives. For instance, some of the mushrooms are shown more or less from below. Roper also includes elements which are not normally found in mushroom illustrations: a hooded man carrying a walking stick, a scull, a full moon, a hawk, a lizard. These references fit well within the domain of the occult.
The occult influence is also evident in the title of the book, where “magic” is spelled with an added “k” at the end of the word. Most people probably associate the spelling with Aleister Crowley who popularised its use. However, when it comes to psychedelic mushrooms Crowley had no part in their popularisation. The occultist died in 1947, which was a full ten years before banker and amateur mycologist R. Gordon Wasson wrote about “the divine mushrooms” in Life magazine. Before his widely read article, it seems that few people in the west knew of – or were interested in experimenting with – psychedelic mushrooms, and from what I gather no record exists of Crowley ever taking them.
Roper has made a career in the music business, creating cover art for rock and metal bands. The transition from heavy guitars to making an art book showing fragile and delicate mushrooms might at first seem unexpected. But according to the artist, he knows the motif inside out: “I’ve always drawn mushrooms. They grow from the tip of my pen” (Roper 138). Interestingly, the paintings in Mushroom Magick were made in only six weeks, which meant Roper had to produce two paintings a day. If one wants to learn more about the details surrounding the project, I recommend listening to an episode of the podcast Expanding Mind, where the aforementioned Erik Davis and co-host Maja D’Aoust did an interview with Roper about the book. (The episode was aired on 5 April 2012 and can be found in the show’s archive.)
Although the mushroom season is in full swing, one would be better off leaving Mushroom Magick at home and instead use a more traditional field guide with colour photographs. Admittedly, it’s rather unlikely that anyone would take the “field guide” bit of the title literally and use the book while going mushroom hunting. Still, the seasoned mycologist John W. Allen has criticised Mushroom Magick for lacking in accuracy. In a review published on his webpage, Allen states that Roper’s book is “a guide that is not reliable and should not be used” (Mushroomjohn.org).
According to Davis’s introduction, “All the species named and pictured are the real deal, and they are all packed to the gills with some manner of psychoactive alkaloids” (Roper 21). As for the latter, this is actually not entirely true. In his review, John W. Allen says the book contains “9 species of mushrooms that are not psychoactive species, although some of those 9 species have been mentioned in other mushroom field guides as possibly hallucinogenic” (Mushroomjohn.org). Roper doesn’t explain the inclusion of non-psychoactive species. Perhaps his decision was for the most part artistic. Since Mushroom Magick clearly is an art book, one could argue the inclusion of some non-psychedelic species is not a problem. That said, I do find Allen’s information regarding the mushrooms featured in Roper’s book valuable.
On the back cover of Mushroom Magick it says that mushroom art and culture stretches back “more than four hundred years”. Of course many psychedelicists may argue this is a far too modest estimation. It’s worth noting that Mushroom Magick was published only three years after Andy Letcher’s 2006 book Shroom – A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom, which challenges the assertion often stated in psychedelic literature that the use of psilocybin mushrooms and other psychoactive fungi have been used for millennia. It’s possible that the proposed date in Roper’s book was a result of reading Shroom.
Incidentally, Shroom is included in Roper’s short yet interesting bibliography, alongside authors such as Paul Stamets, John Allegro and Terence McKenna. Regardless of their differences, these authors were all important influences on Roper: “I strongly encourage anyone interested in mushrooms and their history to pursue the books listed in the bibliography, many of which were vital to me for information and ideas in the conception of this project” (Roper 143).
All things considered, Mushroom Magick is in many ways a remarkable book and an artistic tour de force that hopefully will lead to greater interest and knowledge in the artistic, cultural and historical aspects of psychoactive mushrooms.