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Mushrooms and the Future: Why We Should Pay Attention to Fungi by Sebastian Morello

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Mushrooms and the Future: Why We Should Pay Attention to Fungi

Hundreds of big, tall parasol mushrooms—my favourite wild mushroom—were dotted about in huge rings across the meadow. Returning to my car, I collected my foraging knife (a curved knife with a horse-hair brush attached to the handle) and canvas sack and began to harvest the magnificent fungal crop. Our children darted about finding more hidden fairy-rings onto which I could move next. The late summer sun was setting, and soon I had our dinner on my back. We didn’t strip the field bare, but we had enough mushrooms to fill half our car boot.

Once home, I checked the mushrooms for maggots, then chopped them, fried them in butter, and added garlic, pepper, salt, sherry, double cream, and a few shavings of Gruyère cheese. Soon, we had a large bowl of something loosely resembling a mushroom stroganoff, and the four families we’d invited over were scooping the dish out and piling it upon cake-like sourdough that I’d grabbed from the farm shop down the road. The meal went down very well with large glasses of Romanian pinot noir. Behold: life as it ought to be. Families gathered around a table eating locally foraged mushrooms on locally baked bread, chatting and making merry late into the night. 

While our new lockdown politics makes such humble aspirations of free-association and friendship difficult, it was in fact an accidental effect of the lockdowns that brought us all together that evening. Like many others, I took advantage of our nationwide house-imprisonment to learn to forage. In fact, spending so much time out in the fields and woods, I was amazed to discover that we reside within a wellspring of wild, delicious food. The landscape became for me, besides the realm of beauty it had always been, a source of immediate sustenance, and this changed my relationship with it as I became more—so to speak—one with it.

Our natural union with our surroundings, which all other mammals uncritically feel, and which we have distorted by our technological departure from the world of which we were supposed to make a home, is a union that we can begin to reclaim by becoming students of mushrooms. I mean this quite straightforwardly. Mushrooms are teachers, and we ought to learn from them. 

Fungi comprise a kingdom. This is a fact that most of us do not acknowledge. We are used to talking of the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom, but not of the fungi kingdom. Fungi are not plants; they are more like animals than plants. Unlike plants, they cannot make their own food, and they are largely predatory. Strictly speaking, mushrooms are not foraged but ‘hunted.’ We likely do not think of fungi as a kingdom because fungi are hidden away—vast mycelial networks under our feet—and we only consider them when we see their upward-hanging fruits, that is, their mushrooms.

Learning to hunt mushrooms is dangerous. Whereas the hunting of most quarry entails danger only for the one hunted, many mushrooms will take their predators down with them. The way that these mushrooms take their victims’ lives is also unspeakably awful. Take for example the death cap, or the destroying angel, both of which do not look dissimilar to one of Europe’s yummiest mushrooms, the St. George’s mushroom. Both deadly toadstools will make you vomit for 24 hours. Then, just when you think you’re past it all and on the mend, they poison your blood and one after another shut down your vital organs until you perish in excruciating pain.

For this reason, at first, I learned to identify and hunt only a few mushrooms from books and manuals, ones with no poisonous lookalikes: parasols, giant puffballs, field blewits… Then, to advance further, I went on several courses with expert mycologists with whom I made contact through a local forager (a nice lady who lives on a canal boat and is known in these parts as ‘the hedge-witch’). Through this induction into the mysterious fungal kingdom, I learned to hunt fairy-ring champignons, common puffballs, penny buns, wood ears, shaggy inkcaps, horse and field mushrooms, chanterelles, amethyst deceivers, and shelf mushrooms like beefsteaks and chicken of the woods. 

Learning the craft of mushroom hunting also provided a certain cultural formation, this skill being one that was widespread among our pre-industrial forebears. Mushrooms are deeply embedded in the European folk imagination. Indeed, the red and white-spotted fly agaric mushroom is a staple for children’s fairy-tale illustrations. It is widely believed that Father Christmas’s famous outfit may be traced back to the fly agaric. For centuries, the Sami reindeer-herders of Lapland have used a special technique to enjoy the mind-altering effects of fly agaric-consumption whilst avoiding the consequences of its poisonous properties. Their trick was to feed these mushrooms to their reindeer—which loved the taste of them and were unaffected by their toxicity—which then urinated out a psychedelic beverage which the Sami would then drink. Hallucinogenic deer piss might not sound appetising, but there was no better brew to get them through the polar night, and hence it was highly prized. It is believed by many that this custom has some connection to portraying St. Nicholas dressed in the colours of the fly agaric, soaring out of Lapland, pulled through the air by a herd of reindeer. Fly agarics are very striking mushrooms; when I stumbled upon a bright red fly agaric in the woods near my home, my first thought was that a fairy or pixie must be close by.

In his marvellous book, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, mycologist Merlin Sheldrake reveals how psychedelic mushrooms are leading the way as powerful aids to therapeutic care. Many people have reported that ‘mushroom therapy,’ using psilocybin ‘magic’ mushrooms, has enabled them to move past serious trauma or conquer life-stifling fears. There is also increasing evidence that these mushrooms, used in a careful and controlled manner, can help people overcome grave addictions, even addictions to heroin and crystal meth. There are wonderful passages in Sheldrake’s book that describe how the use of psilocybin mushrooms has allowed people to break out of nihilistic or materialistic conceptions of the world and adopt a perspective that they are inclined to describe as ‘religious,’ ‘spiritual,’ or ‘mystical.’ Recently, a friend described to me his experience of taking these mushrooms as “a total take-over of the brain’s right hemisphere” (readers of Iain McGilchrist will understand).

Alongside mental health, mushrooms are increasingly being used for health in general. For example, due to the pioneering work of mycologist and medical researcher Paul Stamets, many are using ground turkey tail mushroom in capsules to maintain proper immune system function during cancer treatment—a use of this mushroom that may have saved the life of Stamets’s own mother when she had breast cancer. Only now are we in the West beginning to discover the healing properties of chaga, cordyceps, maitake, oyster, shiitake, and other mushrooms. For years now, I have personally been using various mushrooms for my own health, and I recently shook off post-COVID ‘brain fog’ by consuming dried reishi and lion’s mane mushrooms. 

Sheldrake’s book wonderfully presents how fungi are connected with everything else, even our own bodies which rely on a complex fungal system for even their most basic wellbeing. The free-moving, algae-like plant species that left the oceans millions of years ago and became the trees and greenery we see around us today, did so because they partnered with mycelial structures across the open lands. Today, trees and plant life strongly depend on the mycelium that form an underground world, one as alien to us as our ocean depths. 

Only now, through rigorous experimentation, are we beginning to grasp the complexity of the relationship between mycelium and everything else. As you walk through the woods, these underground networks send out signals to the trees and plants, bringing your presence to their ‘attention.’ Just as you are aware of the woodland all around, so the woodland is in some sense aware of you being within it. Mycelial webs can also send signals from one end of their structure to the other, or to different networks of mycelial webbing altogether. How? We don’t really know, but some speculate that this is done by the releasing of a salt solution, whilst others believe it is done by electric waves. 

Perhaps it ought not to surprise us that spotted mushrooms, toadstools, and fairy-rings are a recurring subject of European folklore. There is something about mushrooms that is enchanting. Indeed, the more one studies mushrooms and learns the signs to track and hunt them, the more enchanting they become. What is surprising, however, is that when fungi are subjected to scientific scrutiny, they do not lose their enchanting character, but rather the enchantment is intensified, and what is more, they re-enchant everything else.

Mushrooms really are teachers. The theist argues that everything is connected by its shared intelligibility since it emanates from the mind of God and is granted existence by God, an existence that indirectly participates in His own necessary existence. Everything is also connected, one may argue, on account of the consciousness that we bring to the world, a consciousness that allows us to look upon the world from without, represent it within ourselves for our reflection, and become, as it were, a secondary world within us. Fungi teach us, however, that purposive and meaningful ways of seeing the world as fundamentally interconnected due to mind (both divine and created), are actually reflected ‘extramentally’ in the world itself. Fungi aren’t just a kingdom in their own right; they are the kingdom that bridge kingdoms. Everything, from the vast forests and jungles to the most basic operations of your own body, are bound up with the life of fungi. 

One of the maladies of modernity is that of privileging abstract categories over concrete realities. You can only begin to understand fungi, as Sheldrake brilliantly conveys in his book, once you have privileged reality and grasped that reality is a structure of inter-reliant realities, not isolated abstractions. Reality is comprised of things that are both things in themselves and participant-things that share in a mysterious complexus of symbiotic and interdependent entities, the boundaries between which are blurred to say the least. That this is the true nature of reality, which we only discover once we have returned from our abstractions back to reality, is taught to us no better than by fungi.

In 1970, British archaeologist John M. Allegro published The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross: A Study of the Nature and Origins of Christianity Within the Fertility Cults of the Ancient Near East, in which he argued that Jesus Christ never existed but was in fact a deliberately contrived mythological creation of early Christians who were under the influence of psychoactive mushrooms. Whilst I agree with Philip Jenkins, professor of history at Baylor University, that Allegro’s book is “possibly the single most ludicrous book on Jesus scholarship by a qualified academic,” and downright offensive to pious ears as well, it does not surprise me that fungi have made their way into religious controversy just as they’ve made their way into everything else. There does seem to be something ‘otherworldly’ about mushrooms, and they recurrently adopt a place on the border of religious experience.

Photo: Karl Ander Adami, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Mushrooms, one might suggest, are illustrative of the providential goodness of God. A chief reason why northern Europeans suffer so many colds and coughs during autumn and winter is because they are vitamin and nutrient deficient and their immune systems are struggling. But, as the sun vanishes behind thick, dark clouds, and the cold comes to rattles our bones, up from beneath our world’s surface come the fruits of that mysterious underground world. Mushrooms are packed with vitamins B, C, and D, anti-inflammatories, antioxidants, as well as selenium for protection against cell damage and infections, and magnesium for proper nerve function and energy production. At the very moment when the sky above our heads can no longer give us what we need, the earth beneath comes alive, delivering—like manna in the desert—what we require to keep us going. Moreover, the earth provides us with something that can be dried and kept for months on end without losing its nutritional value. The ‘fittingness’ of this is not only indicative of the existence of God but of theodicy—that is, His goodness.

Many have been predicting that our mass, globalised, hyper-industrialised food production trade is on the verge of collapse. Perhaps they’re right. This might mean, of course, that we shall eat less processed food, more garden vegetables, and perhaps pork from the fattened pig that was in the backyard rather than from some distant, cramped creature in a metal container that’s been kept alive on constant dosages of antibiotics. Moreover, as the healthcare industry continues to undermine itself, that too may collapse. Whatever struggles await us, mushrooms may have an important role in securing our flourishing. These ‘superfoods’ are easily found growing wild (if you know what you are doing) and effortlessly cultivated domestically. Mushrooms are free, delicious, and their medicinal properties are yet to be fully revealed. In navigating through future troubles, let us not ignore this hidden kingdom.

Sebastian Morello is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist. Trained by Sir Roger Scruton, he has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children. He is essays editor of The European Conservative.