Struggling for a title.
Even a word to get me going.
But what does the word mean? And when was it first used? Put together from two ancient Greek words psyche (mind), and deloun (to make visible, or reveal) it could indeed be defined as “mind-revealing”.
This was news to me, since if asked before this post, I’d have probably defined it as implying vibrant, and perhaps clashing gaudy multi-colours. In part this is reasonable, for psychedelic art and music was typically created to try to capture the altered perceptions experienced whilst under the influence of mind-altering drugs, such as LSD.
The quite recent, novel word psychedelic was first penned in the 1950’s, as part of a stanza from Humphrey Osmond, a psychiatrist friend of Aldous Huxley, in a letter he sent in response to Huxley, about the use of LSD and other similar chemicals.
As a lifetime non-smoking, non-drug sampling, and now even tee total abstinent, what do I know about such matters?
Further reading led me, amongst others, to Timothy Leary. Being too young, and of a background protected from much of the “pabulum of the masses“, a phrase of Dad’s, seared into my memory, this name nevertheless rang a bell. A vaguely familiar pop song lyric was dragged from up my brain’s nether regions. It turned out to be from the 1968 The Moody Blue’s song, ‘Legend of A Mind’.
Of a different era, indeed.
With the very beginning of the opening verse of this melodic, almost symphonic tone-poem, mysteriously complex, lyric led song came this recognizable, yet not understood, name, from all those years ago.
For more on Leary’s life and times click here, but of most relevance to this post is the comment that in 1960, Leary travelled with a friend to Mexico to find and consume a wild mushroom, Psilocybe mexicana, which he’d read had mind altering properties, and had a historic role in the religious rites of the indigenous Mazatec people. Later Leary commented that he’d “learned more about his brain and its possibilities, and more about psychology in the five hours after taking these mushrooms, than in the preceding 15 years of studying and doing research in psychology.”
Returning to Harvard University, he co-founded what became known as the Harvard Psilocybin project, exploring the use of mushroom extracts in mind altering psychology experimentation, but this lasted a bare two years before Leary was kicked out of the university in some disgrace. He then spent much of the ’60’s as a counter culture thorn in the side of authorities, including moving in the circles of contemporary pop art and music. As an example of his influence, John Lennon (of The Beatles for those of readers of a younger generation!) wrote the song “Come together“, as a campaign song for Leary’s political campaign against Ronald Regan to be elected governor of California in 1969. Click below, for this classic opening song from their very last recorded, though not the last to be released, ‘Abbey Road’ album.
Leary’s campaign ended prematurely when arrested for marijuana possession and was imprisoned, not for the first time, in his very eventful life. (As indeed did our following of ‘The Beatles’, as the general feeling in our middle-class, tightly restrained, household, was that they were losing the plot, by the end of the swinging sixties. Standards were slipping, along with male hairlines. Perhaps, as things turned out, they were.
Even after his death in 1996, Leary made headlines. Some of his ashes (along with those of other people, including Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry) were launched into orbit aboard a rocket, remaining there, circling the earth, for 6 years before falling back and burning up in the atmosphere. Yet more of his ashes were taken by Susan Sarandon to the 2015 Burning Man Festival, a psychedelic event held annually in the Nevada desert, and burned in the effigy there. Click here for more on Burning Man.
It was really all Fiona’s fault, for as we whacked in more posts in our bottom field, and moved onto some serious wire straining – a job we last tackled over 20 years ago – she found in the undergrowth beneath tangled bramble stems and collapsing willow trees beside our stream, a decaying branch, erupting with small cup like mushrooms.
But these fungal bodies were of the most vibrant and unusual turquoise green colour, almost a psychedelic, unnatural hue, and neither of us had ever seen them before.
Cue a mention in my blog. But for this I needed a photo, so with a couple more hours of fencing to go before lunch, and knowing that fungi are fragile structures which might dessicate, even in the wind and sunshine of mid October, I decide to leave them in the “safe” shade between the wheels of the alpine tractor. Unmissable, as I get back on the vehicle to head up the hill for lunch.
I remembered the mushrooms much later that afternoon, such is now our joint ability to recall such vital details as their “safe” location, at the right time. It’s a testament to the very low pressure of the alpine tractor’s tyres, that the stick was still intact, and though a little bruised, enough of the fungi remained to capture this unique colour.
Later identified as Green Wood-cup, or Green Elfcup, Chlorosplenium (syn. Chlorociboria) aeruginascens, it’s quite a common saprophytic mushroom of wood, which causes green staining within the wood fibres, on already dead wood. Such green discolouration in timber has always been valued in the past for yielding the type of green veneers used for inlaid marquetry, of Tunbridge ware boxes and trays. (Click here for some amazing examples of this intricate work from the Victorian era, and click here for more on the fungus).
In our many years of splitting firewood, we’ve occasionally come across this sort of staining. But never before seen the mushrooms. This is apparently because they are indeed quite rare sightings, unlike the similarly shaped Scarlet Elfcup, Sarcoscypha coccinea, which we see frequently.
The unusual colour is caused by a pigment xylindein. I’d recently read about arsenic based vibrant green colourings, such as ‘Paris’ and ‘Scheele’s’ green, used in paints and wallpapers (click here for more), often with toxic effects in Victorian times, because of their metal-based chemistry. I was intrigued to find that xylindein contains neither copper, nor arsenic. It’s simply a complex quinone molecule, containing carbon (32 atoms), hydrogen (24 atoms) and oxygen (10 atoms). ‘Scheele’s green’ for example is a compound of several elements, AsCuHO3, and so has both copper and arsenic to create its colour.
So, the vibrant xylindein isn’t even as atomically diverse, as chlorophyll, that key pigment of photosynthesis in plants that controls much solar energy capture and has the formula C55 H72 O5 N4 Mg – with a bit of nitrogen and magnesium incorporated in this molecule.
Much of the other, almost psychedelic colours illustrated here, come from the fabulous autumnal leaf changes in the garden this year. I’ve discussed the physiology of leaf colour changes before. Click here, and see how much this area of the garden has changed in the 4 years since I wrote that piece.
In this fantastic year for autumnal colours, we have seen more reds and purples in the garden, often creating psychedelic combinations, as yellows and greens persist in adjacent leaves. It’s surely a time when all one’s carefully planned sympathetic colour combinations explode into vibrant chaos, with spectacular effect under late autumn sunshine, before the grey of winter takes over.
The reds and purples are mainly created by anthocyanins. These chemicals aren’t already present in the leaf, but are produced towards the end of the season depending on the complex interactions of sunlight on sugars, as these are broken down, and the level of phosphate in the leaves, is reduced. And anthocyanins, like the orange and yellow carotenoid and xanthophyll pigments, are simply made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in varying, complex formulae. Just 3 simple atoms creating such an array of molecules, and perceived visual fireworks.
Soot and water.
Carotenoid and xanthophyll pigments are present in the leaves already, and simply have their colours unmasked, as the more dominant green chlorophyll pigments degrade at the end of the year. They can aid with light absorption, but also are powerful anti-oxidants, and help protect chlorophyll against degradation by sunlight for much of the earlier part of the year.
Amidst all this colourful activity, I must record another first up here. Overnight, an area of our hay meadow was ripped up in a fairly well defined circular patch. This was heavy work, probably the result of a badger’s claws, given the depth and size of clods torn up. But the question is, what was it after? Clearly something to eat, but what? The predominant component of a badger’s diet is, apparently, earthworms – they’re capable of consuming up to 200 a night, but will take many of these from the surface of a pasture. They will also eat grubs, and fungi, particularly in autumn.
Given the time of year when this happened, the circular nature of the damage, and the fact that now is the time of year when many small Psilocybe mushrooms are appearing in our fields, might this have been the result of a badger attracted to the smell of the early forming fruiting bodies, beneath the surface? The common Psilocybe semilanceata has known hallucinogenic properties. Presumably this is why it has the common names of “Liberty cap”, or magic mushroom. It’s a scary thought that many of our upland fields are, right now, dotted with clusters of Class A narcotics, on a legally controlled par with heroin, LSD and cocaine.
Or was the pasture damage simply the toil of an errant, or experimenting, badger who, like Leary, discovered their significant mind altering capabilities and thought all that physical effort was well worth it for just a few hours, spaced out in a now psychedelic, spinning, subterranean sett?
And reflecting on the novelty of those strange three headed badgers, seen in the same field.
I must also briefly mention an amazing, almost other worldly, concert at Rhosygilwen, near Cardigan 10 days ago. Click here for more. One of 4 events constituting the annual Schubertiade festival weekend held at this venue, it featured the 40 year old Welsh pianist, Llŷr Williams. We enjoyed an excellent pre-concert dinner, on circular tables in the conservatory, adjacent to the oak framed concert hall, which I’ve mentioned on these pages before. By good fortune I sat next to a delightful couple in their seventies, who’d travelled up from London for the concerts, and had first got to known Llŷr many years earlier, when he lodged with them in London.
Such is his draw, that they return annually for this event. We’d never heard him play before so it was with great anticipation when the casually darkly dressed, bespectacled, thinly built figure walked into the hall and sat at the black Steinway, intriguingly set between the audience’s chairs on either side.
The programme consisted mainly of Schubert pieces, most of which were familiar to us. The first half was really enjoyable, but not spectacular. Then, after the interval, something seemed to change. There was an atmosphere in the hall, and the playing seemed truly inspired, almost of another world.
Llŷr becomes totally physically absorbed. The piano seemed to become part of his body, where hands, arms, feet and face are all moving with the music’s rhythms and melodies. Faultless playing, but so much more than that.
Every key felt. Every note expressed. A perfect union between mind, body, music and instrument. Rapturous applause greeted the performance, which was finished with an amazing virtuoso rendering of a piece introduced simply as ” Beethoven”. Such is the added delight of the intimate Rhosygilwen experience, that post concert, there was Llŷr quietly chatting to delighted members of the audience in the adjacent foyer bar.
If you like classical piano music, do get one of his CD recordings, but even better try to get to hear him. He is scheduled to return to Rhosygilwen next October for another Schubertiade, but is also currently performing the 32 Beethoven piano sonata cycle at the Wigmore Hall in London. Click here (within the next 2 weeks), to listen to his most recent performance there. I’m sure he is on the cusp of a glittering career as one of the world’s greatest concert pianists.
As an example of how special he is, I’m outlining below, the gist of an introductory note from one of the CD’s we bought on line after the event – strangely none were for sale at the venue. Perhaps indeed it’s the total experience of his live performances, which is what Llŷr really wants to share, and what motivates him as a performer?
The then principal of the Royal Academy of Music in London, Sir Curtis Price, was chair of a panel interviewing Llŷr as a postgraduate music student with a first class degree in music from Oxford, who’d just applied for a place at the Academy on their Répétiteur course – a specialised course for pianists who accompany opera rehearsals.
Applicants are asked to prepare a scene from an opera, and play from the full score, whilst singing the vocal parts at the same time. Most applicants choose an uncomplicated section of, say, a Mozart opera. When Llŷr was asked which piece he’d prepared, he said
“The Ring” (Wagner). A 15 hour epic.
“Good heavens” the panel exclaimed, “What passage?”
“Whatever you’d like” Llŷr replied.
“Ok, let’s hear the beginning of Act 2 of Siegfried“
Llŷr proceeded to play and sing all the different voice parts, without even looking at the score.
Sir Curtis Price had never encountered anything comparable in all his years at the Academy. Click below for a feel of what he, and we, experienced with an emotional encore.
Whilst winter beckons.