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One of the central plot devices in Frank Herbert’s 1965 science-fiction epic Dune is melange – colloquially known as ‘spice’ – a naturally-occurring drug found only on the planet Arrakis which has numerous positive effects, including heightened awareness, life extension, and prescience. These effects make it the most important commodity in the cosmos, especially as the prescience allows for faster-than-light interstellar starship navigation (and thus trade) by the ‘Guild Navigators’. The spice also has other more, deleterious effects, which begin with its addictive properties, a symptom of which is the tinting of the whites and pupils of the eye to a dark shade of blue.

This central theme of Dune has often prompted assocations with psychedelic culture – the mystical-surrealist avant-garde film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who once attempted to make a film based on Dune, said that he “wanted to make a film that would give the people who took LSD at that time the hallucinations that you get with that drug, but without hallucinating”. The popular nickname for the strong hallucinogen dimethyl-tryptamine (DMT) – ‘spice’ – may also have taken some inspiration from the novel.

But it seems the origin of the spice theme actually does have a direct link to the psychedelic experience: in his book Mycelium Running, legendary mycologist Paul Stamets notes that not only was Frank Herbert a talented and innovative mushroom enthusiast, but that the sci-fi author confessed to him that Dune took its inspiration from Herbert’s experiences with magic mushrooms:

Frank Herbert, the well-known author of the Dune books, told me his technique for using spores. When I met him in the early 1980s, Frank enjoyed collecting mushrooms on his property near Port Townsend, Washington. An avid mushroom collector, he felt that throwing his less-than-perfect wild chanterelles into the garbage or compost didn’t make sense. Instead, he would put a few weathered chanterelles in a 5-gallon bucket of water, add some salt, and then, after 1 or 2 clavs, pour this spore-mass slurry on the ground at the base of newly planted firs. When he told me chanterelles were glowing from trees not even 10 years old, I couldn’t believe it. No one had previously reported chanterelles arising near such young trees, nor had anyone reported them growing as a result of using this method.” Of course, it did work for Frank, who was simply following nature’s lead.

Frank’s discovery has now been confirmed in the mushroom industry. It is now known that it’s possible to grow many mushrooms using spore slurries from elder mushrooms. Many variables come into play, but in a sense this method is just a variation of what happens when it rains. Water dilutes spores from mushrooms and carries them to new environments. Our responsibility is to make that path easier. Such is the way of nature.

Frank went on to tell me that much of the premise of Dune — the magic spice (spores) that allowed the bending of space (tripping), the giant worms (maggots digesting mushrooms), the eyes of the Freman (the cerulean blue of Psilocybe mushrooms), the mysticism of the female spiritual warriors, the Bene Gesserits (influenced by tales of Maria Sabina and the sacred mushroom cults of Mexico) — came from his perception of the fungal life cycle, and his imagination was stimulated through his experiences with the use of magic mushrooms.

It seems Frank Herbert did indeed ‘let the spice flow’!

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