It’s one of the world’s most shapeshifting, life-enabling, and multi-talented organisms. It can carry fire, let ancient forests talk and mend war wounds. Fungi’s side hustles include breaking down hydrocarbons and expanding human consciousness. Without it, life couldn’t exist, and death couldn’t disappear. So why is its public image still waiting to win a lot of hearts?
To dig into the mind-blowing intricacies of the mycelium networks below mushroom caps, we look at fungi through the lenses of mycologist Paul Stamets, author and biologist Merlin Sheldrake, and interdisciplinary designer Mari Koppanen.
Words by Megan Brownrigg
It’s a weird concept that one person’s icky mould can be another’s “grand molecular decomposer of nature.” Mycologist Paul Stamets understands that mushrooms are divisive. Largely untapped by scientific research, their ecological potential is powerful. This potency can give us humans, an overconfident but ultimately fragile species, the heebie jeebies. In Stamet’s Netflix documentary Fantastic Fungi, food journalist Eugenia Bone perhaps sums this collective wariness up best:
“A lot of people are afraid of mushrooms […] because of fungi’s role in the cycle of life. They decompose dead and dying organisms and move all those nutrients back into the cycle. They are at the very end of stuff, but they’re also at the beginning.”
Or, as author and biologist Merlin Sheldrake puts it in his book ‘Entangled Life:’
“Fungi make worlds. They also unmake them.”
“These networks speak to each other with mind-boggling complexity via electrical impulses. A mother tree can warn her sapling against drought and pests through mycelial networks.”
Mushrooms have long straddled the space between enchantment and repulsion. A few of us revere their beauty, whilst others feel triggered by their growth. Our inner child might see them as squashy soldiers standing to attention in spotty red hats, but our prudent adult watches them drip down tree trunks like poison candle wax.
What few of us remember about mushrooms, is that they’re just the fruit of the fungi universe. Their spongy flowers crown networks of filament that mesh for miles underground. These webs, called mycelium, spark more neural pathways than the human brain. It’s estimated a single thimbleful of soil contains up to 400 metres of these fungal cells. “They’re virtually everywhere,” says Paul Stamets.
These networks speak to each other with mind-boggling complexity via electrical impulses. A mother tree can warn her sapling against drought and pests through mycelial networks, encouraging it to grow further away.
This ‘kin recognition’ between plants wasn’t thought of as possible until recently. If conversations between trees can happen thanks to mycelium, could humans also use them to evade environmental threats? Because that would be so handy right now. Considering that we’re more closely related to fungi than we are to plants, it’s not a totally outrageous concept that we could collaborate with them to save mankind. Stamets, who was a logger before becoming an ecologist, enlisted himself to this school of thought a long time ago. He believes the answers to some of our biggest problems, from depression to the climate emergency, sit with mycelium. For him, it’s a plexus of possibility sitting right beneath our feet that’s being ignored. Of 1.5 million species estimated to exist, we know just 60,000 of them.
Sheldrake would agree that an invisible mine of organic intelligence has been touching our toes since the beginning of time:
“Fungi are veteran survivors of ecological disruption. Their ability to cling on—and often flourish—through periods of catastrophic change is one of their defining characteristics. They are inventive, flexible, and collaborative. With much of life on Earth threatened by human activity, are there ways we can partner with fungi to help us adapt? These may sound like the delirious musings of someone buried up to their neck in decomposing wood chips, but […] might it be that we can’t adjust to life on a damaged planet without cultivating new fungal relationships” (Entangled Life, 2020)
While fungi can turn giants to dust thanks to their decomposition superpowers, nothing has yet managed to undermine their own ability to live. Fungi forms the largest living organism on our planet in the form of the ‘humongous’ honey fungus in Oregon, which occupies 965 hectares of soil. Meanwhile, fungi fossils found in South African lava are believed to date back 2.4 billion years. This stuff has endured and thrived through it all, and probably owns the best blueprint for survival of anything on earth. Far from it being a resilient pest, fungi’s affinity with death is what keeps our world creating life. Plus, if it’s any reassurance: if fungi didn’t break down the dead, we’d be living in a cluttered desert of biomatter that’d kill us anyway.
“Mushrooms represent rebirth, rejuvenation, regeneration. Fungi generates soil that gives life. The task that we face today is to understand the language of nature.”
Those who’ve started extrapolating the potential of fungi and mushrooms have already made some groundbreaking discoveries. Medically, these include the birth of penicillin, the therapeutic application of psychedelic psilocybin for PTSD, and even dabbling in the nerve regrowth potential Lion’s Mane offers to ease dementia. Environmentally, discoveries include training fungi to eat cigarette butts, clean up oil spills and chomp through plastic. Stamets’ latest project Mycelial Earth involves protecting endangered bee populations, the insect responsible for pollinating a third of the world’s food sources, using fungi. He wants more people to engage with fungi on an open-minded level.
“Mushrooms represent rebirth, rejuvenation, regeneration. Fungi generates soil that gives life. The task that we face today is to understand the language of nature. My mission is to discover the language of nature of the fungal networks that communicate with the ecosystem. And I believe nature is intelligent. The fact that we lack the language skills to communicate with nature does not impune the concept that nature is intelligent, but speaks to our inadequacy for communication.” (Fantastic Fungi, Netflix)
Someone who has always been interested in communicating with mushrooms, instead of seeing them as otherly, is Finnish designer Mari Koppanen.
“I was obsessed with these organisms as a child. I loved mushroom books; I was always trying to find the most poisonous or most dangerous or most colourful one in the pictures!” she sings during an interview with Urth.
For her Master’s project, Mari was asked to investigate a group of people. She chose mushrooms.
“I made this illustrated research piece about how different species of mushrooms could represent different human demographics in Oslo. I gave the fungi personas, in terms of how they look, smell and act. The Chanterelle mushroom represented affluent people in the west, and I sketched this mushroom dressed in expensive woollen jackets. I’d draw other mushrooms, which typically grow together in big bunches, to represent big families sharing small apartments in the east of the city.”
Not long after this project, Mari began working with amadou. The spongy material is derived from the Fomes fomentarius fungi, otherwise known as the tinder fungus. Fomes grows through the cracks of trees, holding decaying bark together like a plaster. But, just as with other fungi, it’s also viewed as a parasite, as it starts to eat the trees it attaches to. Mari argues this view is misunderstood. “Tinder fungus only inhabits trees which are already damaged,” she insists.
Mari discovered a village in Romania that celebrates this mushroom as part of its native handicraft tradition. In 2019, Mari googled ‘Corund village,’ contacted the first person she could find and hopped on a plane to visit them. She was greeted at the airport by a man in a mushroom hat, who introduced her to his community of amadou artisans.
Amadou has been around for thousands of years, and like most fungi, carries many different spiritual and medicinal applications. Its tinder like quality, which harnesses slow-burning fires, is what enabled the first people emigrating the northern parts of Europe to carry flames from camp to camp. Confirmation of this came in the 5,000-year-old remains of Ӧtzi the Iceman, which included traces of amadou from his cross-Alpine excursions. Amadou would also have been used as a natural plaster against infections, thanks to all its enzymes working overtime, as well as a material to ward off evil spirits by some communities. Its appearance can chameleon into different colours and shapes depending on the altitude it grows at.
For the artisans of Corund, though, amadou simply makes beautifully soft, hand-sewn hats.
“I got to spend a week with these craftsmen and women to see how the mushroom is processed, from the picking to the designing and creation of folk costumes. It’s not an easy handicraft to get the amadou from the fruiting body of the fungus!” Mari confesses.
Derived from a hoof shaped fungus, amadou is silky and suedey to the touch, with a deep animal-like quality, making it a popular alternative to leather.
“It’s a material which holds empathy,” Mari says. “People often want to place it close to their face or their breast.”
This sense of empathy runs through Mari’s work with amadou, as she champions the people who have tended to its craftsmanship over years.
“I spent a week with the artisans but we didn’t share any common language, yet it was so special to communicate through the fungus. We didn’t need words. That’s how the collaboration started,” Mari tells us.
“First, I designed a three piece collection with the female of the family in mind. Usually the men go to the forests and the mountains to pick the mushrooms, but I wanted to invite the women to the mushroom hunt. So I designed them a piece of jewellery which would keep the bears away from them, and seduce the bees!
I also noticed that the men often had little cuts on their hands from collecting mushrooms, as their tools weren’t that ergonomic, so I created plasters for them using amadou’s antiseptic qualities.
Back in Finland, I got so much positive feedback about the culturally sensitive way that these things were made, that it totally changed my ethical viewpoint as a designer. I always want to include the village in these projects, and closely connect with their folklore and production methods.”
Mari has continued this collaboration with Corund village in her latest project Fomes, for which she’s created furniture emanating the visual qualities of the fomes mushroom, using amadou material. At the time of interview, Mari had recently returned from Corund, where she’d been filming a documentary in partnership with the European Commission, to raise awareness about the dying art of amadou craftsmanship.
“These beautiful, valuable and manual crafts are being forgotten, just because the makers are old. Only seven families practise the craft in Corund, and the younger generations don’t see the potential in the amadou material,” Mari says sadly.
“Most of the artisans are men in their 60s and 70s, so the tradition could realistically die out in the next twenty years. These mushrooms also grow in other forests around the world in Germany, Italy and Canada, and I want to help continue this craft so the knowledge doesn’t disappear,” she finishes, revealing that an online course on cultivating amadou will be released alongside the documentary in 2023.
Mari’s commitment to rebirthing an old art by scouting new creative guardians for amadou reminds me of Sheldrake’s view of the relentless relevance of fungi:
“They can change our minds, heal our bodies and even help us avoid environmental disaster; they are metabolic masters, earth-makers and key players in most of nature’s processes.” (Entangled Life)
Whatever people’s feelings are on fungi, it’s rarely indifference. This organism, just like its mycelium networks, has always sparked strong reactions. Something is telling us, quietly and intuitively, that it’s really significant.
Megan Brownrigg is a British writer. As a freelance journalist, Megan has worked as a BBC radio producer and her writing has appeared in The Telegraph. She loves talking to people in their various places in the world, and believes it’s the best way to sustainably travel. Her blog The Ink Tapes describes her encounters in short stories.