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Editor’s Notebook: December 2009

By Greta Belanger deJong

Was Santa Claus a psychonaut?
by Greta Belanger deJong
The house, at 60-something, feels cool until we go outside—here, it’s real cold. Clear night: stars visible over downtown. The weather beacon on the Walker Center a mile away shines steady blue, the bluest I’ve ever seen it. Sarah Jessica Barker steps livelier than usual. Does her doggie duty. We go back inside. Warmth gushes. I am grateful. Also puzzled, when I pause to think, as I do now; I can’t fathom the mechanism that delivers such luxury to my door.

It has something to do with paying my monthly gas bills, and with the faithful though spendthrifty boiler in the basement, the one for which I received a quote of $20,000 to replace, price of progress, though I wait for something solar I can afford.

How the gas gets here—and electricity, and water: Even if I come to understand the mechanics, it will remain a mystery. I insist on it—not out of ignorance, but as a form of appreciation.

A few weeks ago I sat at a window in the cafeteria of the New York Times’ new building drinking coffee at sunset with my old friend Bill Broad. Bill is a longtime science writer there, with Pulitzers and books under his belt. He understands how things work. We watched the traffic below, dotted lines of light flowing through windy rain; and the buildings twinkling. And together we were amazed that the manmade world works as well as it does: that water runs up 80 stories; that, considering the odds, we rarely crash into each other; that buildings, generally speaking, stay standing.

It’s good to notice how much does flow. Even in the worst of times, we cooperate far more often than we don’t.

My main purpose in going to New York (first time in 23 years) was to visit Ralfee Finn, whose column “Aquarium Age” is probably the first thing you turn to when you pick up CATALYST. Ralfee and I have been what I call telephonic friends, as we’d previously met only once in her 10-year tenure, in Hawaii by half-accident, several years ago. But her voice is as familiar to me as my best friend’s, and her presence in my life as reaffirming. I had a wonderful visit; and I assure you I will not wait another 23 years to return.


Many years ago CATALYST printed a story about Lapp­lander shamans and their flying reindeer. I searched, but I could not find it. I did, however, find Canadian Dana Larsen. You can read his “Psychedelic Santa” in this issue.

“This is a joke, right?” said art director Polly Mottonen, on her first read-through for graphics ideas.

No joke. There is plenty of corroborative material. And plenty here to muse about.

I researched the topic of Dana’s story as extensively as I did because it concerns a mushroom regarded in the U.S. as toxic, with no redeeming value; a mushroom that grows in Utah. I wanted to present this information as responsibly as possible—meaning no one gets hurt, but also that I do not perpetuate longheld but inaccurate cultural biases.

The mushroom in question, amanita muscaria, is a hallucinogen, a gut-wrencher or a tasty meal, depending on how it’s prepared. It is legal. It has a long history of use in many cultures. (There is evidence it played an inspirational role in the writing of “Alice in Wonderland.”) Here’s the catch: It won’t kill you, but its cousins can. An explorer in this area must be discerning. Or practical: Properly prepared a. muscaria is available all over the internet. DIY has its place; probably not here.

You know this mushroom, by the way. It is the red one with white spots that has become practically a cultural icon for good cheer. It danced in “Fantasia.” It houses Smurfs. It’s painted on your grandma’s breadbox, the one from the ’60s that’s now in the basement and holds leftover canning lids, old seed packets and unopened boxes of Rit dye. It may have been painted on your nursery school walls.

Which makes me wonder: Iss the universe trying to make itself known through mycelium? Could A. muscaria possibly be trying to contact us? It sure looks like it’s trying hard.

Who knows what down-to-Earth (or out-of-this-world) wisdom this mycelium might impart?

That is, provided we were ready to hear—physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. That we were sturdy vessels, skillful listeners, with in-shape nervous systems.

It’s a thought.

Whatever your thoughts on the origin of the holiday at hand, I think we can agree on the benefit of sharing in its magic. I send you fond wishes for a magical holiday.

Greta is the editor and publisher of CATALYST.

This article was originally published on November 30, 2009.