Matter of Life and Death

Words by Willow Defebaugh

Fungi are responsible for turning death into new life, offering lessons on how to live in transformative times.

“That’s the friendship of life and death. Death teaches life about unity. Life shelters death from forever.”

Jarod K. Anderson

Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in fungi. Out of everything that makes them so incredible, I love how these eldritch entities embody the fine line that exists between life and death. As far as life goes, they’re an ancient aspect of it; we have found evidence of fungi existing over 400 million years ago, which are believed to have reached heights as great as 24 feet. In fact, the largest known organism alive today is a fungus in Oregon—an Armillaria ostoyae the size of 2,000 football fields, which may be as old as 10,000 years.


Fungi also challenge our classifications of the living. Previously considered plants, fungi are now classified as their own kingdom, which is actually closer to animals. They have been found to demonstrate spatial recognition, memory, and intelligence. In 2010, scientists even performed an experiment in which they arranged oat flakes into a pattern that resembled Tokyo and watched as mold formed nutrient-carrying links between them. By the end, this mycelium network not only resembled the Tokyo metro system—it proved itself to be more efficient.


Through the latticeworks they weave, fungi connect life forms. As Dr. Suzanne Simard once told me, the mycelial networks in forests are how trees exchange nutrients and information. Not only that, the tree roots deliver carbon to the mycelium which then stores it deep within the Earth—meaning mycelia may be key to combating climate change. And as Lauren Cochrane illuminated in a recent story for Atmos, fungi are also poised to revolutionize the fashion world now that Mylo—a “mushroom leather” made from mycelium—is being commercialized.


Fungi also save lives. They are responsible for the most miraculous of modern medicines: penicillin, the healing properties of which were accidentally uncovered on a moldy petri dish by Alexander Fleming in 1928. Reishi mushrooms offer a whole host of health benefits including boosting the immune system as well as fighting cancer and memory loss. Meanwhile, psilocybin (a psychoactive compound produced by hundreds of species of fungi) may have played a role in the otherwise inexplicable evolutionary leap of the human brain. And a growing body of research finds that it has transformative effects on depression and anxiety.


Speaking of transformation: fungi are responsible for turning death into new life, growing from decay. Oyster mushrooms can even digest plastic, another way fungi might be able to help us avert ecocide. We owe fungi for the very soil underneath our feet. As biologist Merlin Sheldrake explained to Whitney Bauck for Atmos: “There wouldn’t be something called soil were it not for the action of decomposer fungi who disassemble organic material—like wood or the dead body of a fox—into simpler components, which then form part of what we think of as soil.”


Fungi challenge our binary notions of life and death, leading to questions like: what if these two forces aren’t even opposites? As Richard Powers posed to me in our recent issue, one may just be the invention of the other: “In the consciousness of interbeing, death is not only a necessary and acceptable part of the change and the seasonal migration of life, it actually is the best technology that life ever came up with. Because it is the engine of birth. It enables evolution.”


We are living in transformative times; decomposition is everywhere. I have watched so many people make evolutionary leaps in their lives over the last few years. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it has happened during a time when death has been so present, or that humanity’s fascination with fungi has flourished during that same time. Fungi remind us that life and death are not enemies, but friends. Death is what turns life’s wheel. What we see as a breaking down can be used for growth—or better yet, the genesis of something new.

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