Mythos and Mycology

WORDS BY WHITNEY BAUCK

PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALEXANDRA VON FUERST

As humans start to pay more attention to them, fungi are changing how we see the story of life on our planet. Biologist Merlin Sheldrake weighs in on why mushrooms have always been main characters.

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When you start learning about everything fungi can do, it’s hard not to see them as protagonists in the story of life on Earth.

 

Though often overshadowed in the human imagination by animals and plants, fungi have altered the course of planetary history in dramatic ways, influencing everything from global climate and religion to food systems and evolutionary biology. They are, as biologist Merlin Sheldrake likes to say, “worldmakers.”

 

Recently, they’ve been receiving a bit more recognition for the many crucial roles they play in our ecosystems. As a result, they suddenly seem to be everywhere: sprouting from grow kits on our counters, inspiring haute couture collections, and starring in award-winning books and films.

 

According to Sheldrake, the burgeoning public interest in fungi—a kingdom that includes everything from yeast and varieties of mold to psychedelics and the shiitake in your fridge—coincides with a growing body of knowledge about them. But the symbolic functions that fungi fulfill are perhaps what most capture our imaginations.

 

“As environmental crises have worsened, people have become aware of the many shimmering networks of connection that we’re bound up in,” Sheldrake explains. “Fungi have become ecological poster organisms for this, because they form these persistent physical connections and networks with other organisms.”

 

For those seeking hope in a destabilizing world, fungi (of which mushrooms are just the fruiting bodies, analogous to the apples on an apple tree) may seem like the perfect vessel. They can digest cigarette butts and toxic chemicals, serve as an alternative to leather, meat, and plastic, and help trees communicate with one another via the “wood wide web.” Plus, they often defy incredible odds, proving themselves capable of growing through concrete or even solving mazes.

 

However, if fungi are protagonists, the scientist in Sheldrake would shy away from characterizing them as anything like the unambiguous heroes in a Hollywood film—he’s quick to point out they’re just as capable of creating what humans would classify as problems (hello, crop blight).

 

Still, he describes mycology as a “neglected megascience” and thinks that allowing fungi to play a larger role in science, as well as in the social imagination, would greatly benefit humanity. He points to lichens as an example: Long seen as individual organisms, research in the nineteenth century proved that they actually consist of a partnership between fungi and algae. This paved the way for a new understanding of natural relationships in which collaboration, rather than competition, drives interactions. It also challenged the very notion of the individual: If the fungi and algae evolved together to create what we now know as lichen, are they even really separable from one another? What does any of this mean for organisms like us, who rely on fungi and microbes in our guts to stay alive and healthy—where do “we” end and “they” begin? If we saw ourselves as being this intimately connected to other organisms, how would it change our interactions with the world?

 

The more we learn about fungi, Sheldrake argues, the more we question reality as we’ve always seen it. “The ways that we try to make sense of fungi often tell us as much about ourselves as the fungi that we try to understand,” Sheldrake writes in his recent book on fungi, Entangled Life.

 

To get a better sense of what this enigmatic group of organisms can teach us about the world and ourselves, we chatted with Sheldrake about fungi’s connections to everything from queer theory and spirituality to carbon sequestration and climate change.

“Thinking about fungi, you have a vivid sense of the intricate webs of interaction and communication we’re bound up in, and that it isn’t possible to think about one aspect of the living world in isolation from everything else.”

MERLIN SHELDRAKE

Whitney

How does learning from fungi change how we see ourselves and the world around us?

Merlin

They can teach us about indeterminacy and unpredictability and open-endedness.  There’s a sense in which the lives of mycelial fungi, in particular, teach us about the way that all organisms are in constant dialogue with their surroundings—that we’re less collections of matter and more systems through which matter is passing. The stuff that makes up your cells is different from the stuff that made you up a few years ago.

 

We also tend to think about brains as a prerequisite for intelligence. But the behavior of mycelium teaches us that brains aren’t always required to solve problems. Fungi are able to navigate the shortest distance between two points in a maze, which is serious problem solving—without a brain.

 

In general, we can learn a lot in trying to decenter our human perspective. We get so used to seeing things from our point of view that we can forget that there are other ways of experiencing the world. I’m speaking to a kind of species narcissism, a human exceptionalism that can blind us to what is going on around us.

Whitney

If we could see more of the organisms around us as having a kind of intelligence, how might it change our interactions with them?

Merlin

One of the reasons we’re in such a pickle at the moment is because of our tendency to mechanize and objectify the living world. If I see other organisms as engaged in solving problems and making decisions, then I stop being the center. If you’re walking in a forest and become aware of the ways that the organisms around you might also be aware of you and perceiving you, this does something to your perspective that can be good medicine for human-centeredness. It provides a healthy dose of humility.

Whitney

What can we learn from fungi about collaboration?

Merlin

Some of the basic lessons of fungi concern interconnectedness. Thinking about fungi, you have a vivid sense of the intricate webs of interaction and communication we’re bound up in, and that it isn’t possible to think about one aspect of the living world in isolation from everything else.

 

Once you start taking this view, then collaboration becomes unavoidable—it just depends what kind of collaborator you want to be. If you think about the microbes in your gut—they help with digestion in a really important way, but if they get into your bloodstream, they can cause an infection that kills you. Fungi “collaborate” in a whole range of ways, from mutually beneficial to hostile.

Whitney

What can we learn from fungi’s decentralized networking in terms of how we organize human movements and societies?

Merlin

Despite the number of significant decentralized systems in the world, from the internet to blockchain, we tend to have very centralized ways of running countries and states. All the main models right now reflect our centralized animal bodies: heads of state, capital cities, et cetera. A number of schools of thought have sprung up over the years that deal with a less centralized way of organizing and governing. Fungi, along with plants, illustrate this by living decentralized lives without heads or hearts.

Whitney

How can plants help us understand certain kinds of fungi better, especially ones that are hard for the average person to observe?

Merlin

Mycorrhizal fungi, in particular, are engaged in all sorts of relationships underground, so they’re difficult for us to see. But when you see a plant growing, you’re seeing the outgrowth of an association with fungi. When you eat a plant, you’re also eating fungal tissue, because fungi live in the leaves and stems of plants as well. Plants are a visible consequence of an ancient relationship [with fungi].

Whitney

What do the narratives we’ve used throughout history to talk about fungi tell us about ourselves?

Merlin

History is full of people trying to make sense of the way organisms are interacting using ideas and concepts imported from human social lives. Take, for example, the algae and fungi that make up a lichen. In the early days of lichen biology in the late nineteenth century, they would categorize this relationship as, say, a fungal tyrant and his captive algal damsel.

Then, people would use their observations to naturalize human behaviors, saying, “This thing that humans do is natural: It occurs in nature.” But actually, it was imported from human social life in the first place. You see this all the time in the history of biology and particularly symbiosis because it’s the study of relationships, and it’s very hard not to dramatize those relationships. Not that we shouldn’t animate those relationships with concepts that make them meaningful to us, but we get into trouble when we prioritize one type of story above others for ideological reasons.

Whitney

How did lichens revolutionize our understanding of the types of relationships organisms can have with one another?

Merlin

After the germ theory of disease up until Simon Schwendener came up with the dual hypothesis of lichens in 1869, the intimate sharing of bodily space had meant parasitism. The idea that you could have a mutually beneficial association with that kind of intimate bodily sharing was shocking.

 

As it became clear that this was in fact going on in lichens, Albert Frank, who was a kind of symbiotic visionary, thought that a new word was needed to describe the association of organisms without assuming what the dynamic was like beforehand. So, rather than saying “parasitism” or “disease,” which assumes one partner is benefitting at the other’s expense, “symbiosis” describes their living together in a kind of agnostic way.

 

It opened up new biological possibilities for researchers because you could suddenly describe things in new ways. Soon after the word symbiosis was coined, all sorts of new symbiotic discoveries were made. I think of lichens as a gateway organism into the idea of intimate cooperation in the living world.

Whitney

In Entangled Life, you reference queer theory being applied to the study of lichens. How can queer theory help scientists ask better questions?

Merlin

Queer theory explores non-binary ways of dealing with identity, so it can help get us out of dichotomies that can be paralyzing. In the case of symbiotic relationships and lichen, it encourages researchers to think of identity as a question rather than an answer known in advance. If you don’t presume to know what this organism is before you start investigating it—if the very nature of its being is a question—then you get to some interesting places.

Whitney

How might politics have influenced the way biologists and mycologists framed relationships, like those in lichens, historically?

Merlin

When evolutionary theory was being developed in the late nineteenth century in English-speaking countries, the view of evolution mirrored views of human social progress within industrial capitalist systems. It was seen as one of competition for limited resources. It differed from the views that were traditionally held in other parts of the world. It doesn’t divide neatly down East-West lines: Russian thinkers had a more cooperative view of evolution proceeding through collaboration, for example.

Whitney

Psilocybin is part of what’s driven recent interest in and research on fungi. How does it work, and how is it different from other drugs?

Merlin

Patients who have strong mystical experiences with psilocybin tend to have better outcomes when it comes to recovering from the symptoms of anxiety following a terminal diagnosis. It seems to be that people’s mystical experiences are helping heal them, which is different from the way you’d think about the action of a drug doing something like changing the way that your heart beats or changing the way your blood vessels open and close. Most people are familiar with the idea of our minds helping our bodies to heal because of the placebo effect—it’s a big wonderful mystery at the heart of medicine.

Whitney

How does psilocybin encourage mental flexibility, and what applications could this have for addressing big problems like the climate crisis?

Merlin

Psilocybin facilitates an unconstrained style of cognition, and in that state, new horizons of mental possibility open up. If the narratives we use to organize our everyday life, which can become really rigid, start to decalcify, then we can conceive of new possibilities. That state of flexibility is what we might think of as potentially feeding innovation. The climate crisis is big and complicated. Insofar as psychedelics can help us see problems from new angles, they could play a role in our working out where we want to go.

“I like the space created by open questions. When you’ve answered a question, you’ve sort of extinguished it. From this point of view, uncertainties are food for further curiosity rather than being terrible problems.”

MERLIN SHELDRAKE

Whitney

Fungi also have a more direct relationship with the climate crisis. Can you explain the role they play in the carbon cycle and healthy soils?

Merlin

One really important aspect of soil life and health comes from mycorrhizal fungi, which are the fungi that partner with plants. They live in plant roots and extend into the soil, and they trade nutrients and water with plants in return for carbon-containing energy compounds like sugars. So, plants are producing carbon in photosynthesis that floods down into the soil through mycorrhizal fungi.

 

More carbon is bound up in the soil than in the entire atmosphere and vegetation of the world combined. Much of this carbon is bound up in the tough compounds produced by microbes, many of which are fungi. Microbes acquire carbon, and when they die, that carbon is then embedded in the soil, making the soil a great carbon sink.

 

And then, there’s decomposition. 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.

Whitney

What are some of the practical implications of all of this when we think about how to mitigate the climate crisis?

Merlin

There’s a growing movement to reform the destructive practices of industrial agriculture, which has paid very little attention to the life and the health of the soil. There are a number of ways one can do this, but putting carbon back into the soil nourishes the microbial communities in the soil and helps draw down CO2. Without that, soil washes away because there’s nothing to hold it together.

 

Forestry is another area to think about. All trees depend on mycorrhizal fungal partners to help them grow. So, there’s a lot of room for microbially literate forestry, not only for the sake of the aboveground parts of the forest—like the part of trees that we can see—but also for the belowground part of the forest, which is in many ways where most of the forest is. If we think about reforestation projects not just in terms of visible timber but in terms of a rich underground world, then there’s going to be a lot more successful reforestation and more powerful drawdown.

Whitney

How can fungi help us address some of the other pressing environmental problems we face?

Merlin

There are two sides of this: mycofabrication, which uses fungi to build stuff, and mycoremediation, which uses fungi to break stuff down. Using fungi to break down sugar and grape juice to make wine or to break down soybeans to make miso is something we have done for a really long time. Mycoremediation is an extension of this: Can we use fungal appetites to break down things that have become pollutants?

 

One of the ways mycoremediation might succeed is by diverting pollutants before things ever hit the landfill. We can collect certain types of waste and process those in facilities with fungi that have ideal conditions to do the job. That’s the approach taken by a company called Mycocycle and someone called Peter McCoy. Another way that fungi can help is by sequestering heavy metals. There’s a company in Finland which uses mycelium to reclaim gold from electronic waste.

 

It’s a field with a great amount of potential, but there’s a lot of development that needs to happen. You might have a fungal strain in a lab that can digest something in a dish in ideal conditions. But if you put that fungus into a polluted environment, that’s not to say the fungus will be able to do what it needs to do to break that chemical down. Mycoremediation needs more investment and attention.

 

Mycofabrication is where you grow mycelium on waste material like corn stalks or sawdust. You make a kind of composite where the mycelium grows through these materials to produce a block or a sheet, and that is used as a building material. Or you can encourage the mycelium to grow up into the air and create a foamy material, which can be tanned to create a kind of mycelial leather. Adidas is working on a mycelial sneaker based on these materials.

 

The advantage of all these fungal materials is that they grow quickly on waste and they can disrupt polluting industries like plastic. Dell is shipping servers in mycelial packaging—if you add up all of the plastic that would have been in that packaging, then you can see one of the ways mycofabrication can help.

Whitney

There seem to be a lot of connections between fungi and human spirituality, whether that’s the existence of a patron saint of truffles or a god of fermentation. Why are they so strongly linked across so many different cultures?

Merlin

For the bulk of human history with fermentation, people didn’t know that yeast were microscopic organisms. This powerful force in the living world was deified to explain its transformational capacity. Because it doesn’t just transform matter: It creates alcohol, which then transforms us in the way we feel and behave. These processes have to be incorporated into human cosmologies—they’re a part of the world. And psychoactive fungi or psychedelics are also called “entheogens,” or substances capable of eliciting the experience of the divine within—they have formed the basis of spiritual practices for an unknowably long time.

Whitney

For all the research that’s being done, there’s clearly so much we still don’t know about the world of fungi. How has living in that uncertainty shaped you as a person and a scientist?

Merlin

I like the space created by open questions. When you’ve answered a question, you’ve sort of extinguished it. From this point of view, uncertainties are food for further curiosity rather than being terrible problems.

CREATIVE DIRECTION AND SET DESIGN EFFIE VILLAGOMEZ

Shop Atmos Volume 05: Hive

Shop Atmos Volume 05: Hive

In the face of the climate crisis, one thing is clear: we will only get to an ecologically just future by way of working together. If humankind is to heal its relationship to the rest of creation, it must restore harmony—which cannot exist without collaboration. And what could be more emblematic of holism and harmony than a hive?

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