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The New Natural Histories of Mushrooms

Mushrooms may not be what you think they are. For the majority of their lives, mushroom-making organisms make no mushrooms. Instead, generally hidden away from view and in forms sometimes microscopically small, they develop in a fine webbed structure known as mycelium. This mycelium consists of tubular filaments, hyphae, which ramify, threadlike, through their substrates – soil, a rotting tree, a pile of horse dung. They can reproduce clonally without ever leaving their substrate (take a nugget of the dung, put it in a new pile, and you may have just turned one colony into two). In fact, if all is well, some species can live more or less invisibly for decades. Until, that is, the organism sends the envoys of its genetic material into new, hopefully more hospitable terrain, a process for which it requires a spore-dispersal mechanism.

Enter the mushroom, the fungal kingdom’s answer to the trebuchet.

As Nicholas Money puts it in Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History, thinking of the mushroom in place of the whole mushroom-forming organism is ‘a bit like using a photograph of a large pair of testicles to represent an elephant’. (The flaw in this memorable comparison is that the spore inside a mushroom is ready to grow into next-generation fungus, so long as it’s launched into congenial conditions, whereas an elephant sperm cell only contains half the chromosomes needed to begin a baby elephant.) Like the testicle, the mushroom is just one component of an organism, relatively peripheral to the organism’s viability, if essential to the continuation of its species. Unlike the elephant testicle (and hence the force of Money’s comparison), it is the part of the organism to which human cultures have in general paid the most attention. It’s this spore-disperser, not the hard-working mycelium, that we might consider dining on, illustrating, ingesting for hallucinatory or medicinal purposes, founding a taxonomic system around, deploying in the assassination of an unlikeable Roman emperor, or photographing on our nature rambles. It’s what appears in the field guides, the cookbooks, and the mythologies.

While the workings of the mycelium itself are beginning to capture Western interest (more on which anon), it’s the mushroom that for at least thousands of years has been the focus of relationship between mushroom-forming fungi and humans. These relationships have been taken up in a flush of new books, including Nicholas Money’s Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, and, in Australia, Alison Pouliot’s The Allure of Fungi – besides a secondary flush less interested in analysing the human/fungus relationship than in actively facilitating it (see, for instance, Peter McCoy’s Radical Mycology: On Seeing and Working with Fungi (2016) and the many publications of mushroom-evangelical, Paul Stamets, which offer basidiomycota as the solution to everything from world hunger to honeybee population decline and oil spills).

These relationships, as Tsing, Pouliot and Money all show, are thick with human emotion: disgust, desire, greed, curiosity, anxiety, tender regard. But their books also supply evidence that the human investment in mushrooms likewise influences the emotions of fungi. If the concept of ‘fungal emotion’ doesn’t sit easily with your sense of fungi as vegetally inert, then consider what it takes to persuade mycelia to raise their genitals above the parapet.

In a chapter on the history of mushroom cultivation, Nicholas Money relays from Song dynasty records the methods used to induce the mushrooming of shiitakes (Lentinula edodes). Shiitakes digest dead hardwood trees and logs (their Japanese name derives from one of their favourite foods, the shii tree, Castanopsis cuspidata), converting highly complex carbohydrates into forms more available to other microorganisms. Left to their own devices, the mycelium can go for years without ‘fruiting’ or producing mushrooms. But the shiitake cultivators of the Song dynasty urged on mushroom production by burying logs for a year, then unearthing them, dunking them in cold water and slamming them with wooden clubs. It seems the temperature shock and the thumping trigger mushroom emergence as the mycelia rally the resources they need to move their genes on to a nicer neighbourhood. By 2011, Money relates, China had come to control 80 per cent of a US$20 billion mushroom market and Japan’s domestic production of shiitake was in a 50,000 kilogram per annum deficit; unsurprisingly, since then, researchers have been investigating more effective mycelium stressors than the log-contusion technique. Recent Japanese experiments into the effects of simulated lightning strikes on eight species of saprophytic fungi, including Lentinula edodes, show that when logs colonised with shiitake mycelium receive an electric shock, they withdraw energy from their submerged hyphae and instead invest in the production of mushrooms – in fact, more than twice the number of mushrooms ventured up by the control mycelia.

Unless they’re eaten first, Money tells us, these mushrooms are extraordinarily effective propaganda machines, their gills flinging spore at a rate of more than 100,000 times the spore’s own length per second. The spores are genetically different from the two compatible mating organisms that make the mushroom (in some cases, there is even genetic difference between spores within the same mushroom). These proliferating genetic differences of course give the family more chances of surviving in the changed environments into which the youngsters are dispersed; just as importantly, the catapulting of spores into the air enables the fungus to send its offspring off to more possible refuges, away from the one that’s being zapped with a cattle prod.

The research strongly implies that shiitakes are fruiting more, and more, in a kind of generative anxiety around the existential threat to their substrates (there’s that fungal emotion). As she follows the matsutake mushroom around the world, Anna Tsing shows how matsutakes respond tactically to environmental pressures, particularly the pressures that relate to two of the parties with which matsutake are most intimately entangled: humans and trees.

Unlike shiitakes, which digest hardwood, matsutakes form mycorrhizal associations with various conifer species. A mycorrhizal association occurs when mycelium sheathes a plant’s roots and vastly extends the root system’s reach. The mycelium provides the plant with hard-to-access minerals, a layer of protection against would-be parasites, and may enable communication and nutrient exchange with other plants, even connecting whole forests in what has been referred to (by almost everyone who writes on the subject) as a ‘wood-wide web’; in exchange, the plant provides the mycelium with sugars (indeed, possibly up to 80 per cent of a plant’s sugars are produced to support its symbionts). Tsing argues that the matsutake fungus tracks ‘weather changes from year to year’ and engages in ‘multiyear strategic planning so that carbohydrates stored up one year might be expended in later fruiting’. (She also suggests that trees with mycorrhizal partners do the same thing. This ‘masting’, as periodic fruiting is called, appears ‘to be coordinated between trees and their fungi’, fungi storing carbohydrates for the fruiting of trees and trees accommodating ‘the uneven fruiting of fungi’). Crucially, Tsing is implying that the question of whether to mushroom, or not, is the subject of fungal (or fungal-plant) deliberation, in a weighing up of resources, threats, and social obligations. You can’t spend long with her book without suspecting there may be such a thing as mycelial intelligence.

In 2013, Alison Pouliot and John Ryan edited a special issue of Australia’s oldest environmental humanities journal, Philosophy Activism Nature – on fungi. In their editorial, they observed that ‘despite their ubiquity and ecological importance, fungi are largely unregarded, especially in English-speaking cultures where mycophobia is the overwhelming norm’. This is a complaint common to twenty-first-century writing about fungi, and a complaint founded – at least in the Western tradition – on a pattern of deep contempt for a group of organisms that didn’t quite fit into either of the two kingdoms, plant or animal, systematised in the eighteenth century by Carl Linnaeus. There’s a delightful moment in The Allure of Fungi, when Pouliot visits the Linnaeus Garden in Sweden and finds Linnaeus’ lawn overrun with collapsing ink cap mushrooms ­– revenge, she has it, for his consigning fungi to the lower orders of the plant kingdom in the Species Plantarum of 1753.

Our own Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conversation Act 1999 lists, as Pouliot notes, two thousand species of plants and animals and just two species of fungi. Worse, the two fungi it mentions are described as threats to biodiversity rather than as vital citizens of ecosystems endangered by our (mostly) drying climate. The EPBC is regularly updated, the latest update from 2019 shuffling two plants and nine vertebrate animals between the categories of the extinct, critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable: no fungi, but, to be fair, also no invertebrates, another group that almost three hundred years ago fell ignominiously among the ‘lower orders’.

Fungi are integral to the functioning of ecosystems; we ignore them (and it seems that in our environmental legislation we do ignore them) at our peril. But this ignoring, sometimes bordering on outright hostility, is being slowly, partially corrected by a literature on fungi and a culture of fungal regard emerging (shiitake-style) from the woodwork (a woodwork they will perhaps go on to devour, if they’ve learnt anything from the wood-rotting fungi that Pouliot proudly claims have sunk more ships than all the naval battles since 1600). Not so long ago, a smattering of ‘mycophiles, activists and DIYers’, as Peter McCoy describes his comrades in Radical Mycology (2015), communed underground, via self-published zines and psilocybe-enthusiast websites of a decidedly Web 1.0 stripe.  But the recent books on the natural and cultural history of fungi suggest a kind of mainstream interest that McCoy (and even the Pouliot of 2013) could only have dreamt of.

The Allure of Fungi has been lauded in mass-circulation Australian lifestyle magazines, exercising its own significant allure through stunningly beautiful macrophotography of sporebodies in mossy forests (an allure compounded, for me at least, by Pouliot’s bold sticking-up-for-the-parasites, and her weird hybridising of memoir, manifesto, natural history and ethnomycology). Meanwhile, Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World has become a staple in studies of multispecies relationships and biocultures of what she calls the Capitalocene. Tsing’s story of the complex interrelationships between the globalised mushroom, forests, people and their interlocking lifeways offers an appealingly redemptive parable for those who fear that humans’ environmental disturbance may be the end of all the lives and species and systems that have value. Money’s Mushroom: A Natural and Cultural History follows (and to some extent rehearses) his Mushroom (Oxford UP, 2011) and The Triumph of the Fungi: A Rotten History (Oxford UP, 2006), all three of which are jaunty, accessible, and, it seems, highly accessed books. And there is, of course, the corpus of the inimitable Paul Stamets, who reached mainstream audiences for good in 2005 with his Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (Ten Speed Press), in which Stamets lists the substrates he has encouraged mycelia to digest, including toxic waste, banknotes, and his own books.

This is to say nothing of the proliferating mycoculture courses (learn how to clone your own reishi!), the pre-inoculated shiitake logs on sale at your local nursery, the dehydrated pink oyster mushroom spawn procurable in the seed aisle at Bunnings, the foraging workshops, the fungi fanciers’ Facebook groups, the pine mushrooms at the farmer’s market, the Mycogold™ root inoculant which will ensure better nutrient uptake, pest resistance, and crop yields in, well, your crops. All this indicates a growing body of people interested in the ways fungi recycle nutrients and make them available to other species, work symbiotically with plants, provide an excellent subject for one’s revolutionary urban agrarian coffee-grounds-to-oyster-mushrooms living-room project, and are themselves intrinsically valuable. It’s almost as if we’re seeing a generative cultural mushrooming of interest in fungi, if not as victims of the Anthropocene, then as partners in its survival (which fungi may well be: Stamets opens Mycelium Running with the claim that ‘mycological membranes … heal habitats suffering from poor nutrition, stress, and toxic waste. In this sense, mushrooms emerge as environmental guardians in a time critical to our mutual evolutionary survival’). It’s almost as if we think the substrate of Western culture is at risk of lightning strike, and the very medium in which we subsist may soon be burning and crashing to the ground, and we’d better hurry up and fuse hyphae with a compatible mating body and produce new agents of dissemination, new signs of distress, new catapults of hopeful spore-dispersal in bright colours and strange forms, new – what we call where I work – texts.

Anxiety is of course not the only reason why these books-cum-cultural-spore-dispersers or their readerships exist. But they are self-consciously anxious and it is an anxiety that makes common cause with the worries of fungi themselves. Call this moment the Anthropocene, late capitalism, an era of global warming, global weirding, or climate change, fungi and humans are both implicated. Pouliot ends The Allure of Fungi – in many ways a sustained treatise about, and against, our disregard for fungi – by drawing out the implications of loss of habitat and species ‘in a time of increasing globalization and rapid change’, when so-called ‘landcare’ is miles away from Indigenous practices of ‘caring for Country’, and where ‘climate change-induced drying’ threatens fungi and therefore the systems to which they are integral. She walks the reader through a forest that has been subject to a supposedly controlled burn, beneath which the ground is baked hard like a ceramic dish, with no chance of mycelial survival. In Australia, mushrooms are disappearing in the great drying out of our forests. In Europe, on the other hand, some of them are doing a bit too well. Money notes, in Mushroom, that ‘Detailed studies of historical fruiting patterns have shown that the calendar for fungal reproduction has shifted in recent decades. … In southern England, for example, a study of tens of thousands of records of fruiting showed that the duration of the fall mushroom season has more than doubled since the 1950s’. These dramatic effects on fungal reproduction ‘add to the mélange of foreboding indicators about our changing climate. More alarming than changes in fall fruiting calendar, perhaps, is the finding that some species have begun to fruit in the spring and in the fall. The effect is most pronounced among wood-decay basidiomycetes, which suggests that decomposition is accelerating.’ It’s hard to gauge exactly what the ecological consequences of accelerated decomposition will be, but you can be sure that they will be profound. All that carbon has to go somewhere.

The Mushroom at the End of the World is perhaps both the most anxious and the most consoling of these new books on the natural-cultural histories of mushrooms. For centuries, the matsutake mushroom thrived in Japan at least in part because people’s tree-felling practices created the forest disturbances in which red pine trees – the local matsutake’s mycorrhizal partner – could thrive. In the twentieth century, the move away from traditional foresting practices, as alternative fuel sources became available, allowed broadleaf trees to revive in the forest, and this saw a decline in both numbers of pines, which can’t survive under broadleaf shade, and matsutake. Scarcity drove up the value of the mushroom, international matsutake sources were located, migrant workers deployed, supply chains corrupted, crucial local differences ignored in global mushroom harvesting ventures – it’s a complicated story, and Tsing doesn’t shy from its complexity. Instead, envisioning and demonstrating a global ecological crisis in which life on earth is at stake, she shows the anxiety-making gap between our intentions and their outcomes. What post-Wordsworthian environmentalist could imagine that something as seemingly ‘nature-friendly’ as not chopping down trees could drive a precious mushroom almost to local extinction? Maybe, runs her answer, a Romantic fantasy of unsmutched wild nature isn’t the way forward. As she puts it, in Romantic thinking, ‘Wilderness is the only place where nature remains sovereign; on human-disturbed landscapes, we see only the effects of the modernist caricature Man. We have stopped believing that the life of forest is strong enough to make itself felt around humans.’  This caricature Man, she tells us, isn’t the only kind of human and ‘wilderness’ isn’t the only kind of forest. To see what another way of being human and being forest might look like, Tsing takes her reader into the thick of forest revitalisation projects that resurrect old peasant practices for the here and now. They feel strangely, hopefully practicable.

Analogies between writing and fungi, or collaborating and fungi, spring up repeatedly in these narratives of mushroom lives. Pouliot and John Ryan describe their journal issue as joined together by ‘mycelial collective threads’. Tsing introduces the short chapters of her book as ‘like the flushes of mushrooms that come up after a rain: an over-the-top bounty; a temptation to explore; an always too many’. Recalling the binding, netting activities of forest fungi in her preface, she notes ‘All books emerge from similarly hidden collaborations’. Figures of speech that make fungi like culture abound (miraculously, Money, Pouliot and Tsing all avoid the temptations of the truly sporeful mushroom pun). These rhetorical turns work hard to draw out the similarities between mycelium and discourse, fungi and culture –manifold similarities, and not limited to our shared efflorescence under stress – but these similarities are not the main thrust of these books. Their larger message is not that fungi are like us, but that we are, despite or through our differences, implicated in each others’ stories.

Natural history writing of the European tradition positions humans (or certain privileged humans) as writing and the non-human as being written about. It’s significant that the natural history writing of Pouliot, Money and Tsing instead foregrounds the interconnectedness of fungi and people, this interconnectedness the very object of their writing. These books are pioneers in ethnomycology, as anthropological as they are mycological. Their interest in humans’ implication in natural histories is not unique to writing about mushrooms (we could look back at least as far as Tim Low’s The New Nature (2002), which tells stories of indigenous plant and animal species thriving on the fruits of colonial disturbance – fruit bats navigating by streetlights, for instance ­– and further back to landmark studies in multispecies biocultures, notably Deborah Bird Rose’s Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture (1992)). The global reach of anthropogenic climate change, to say nothing of the great imperial species redistributions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, means that there is no nature that doesn’t have to reckon on some level with our species’ involvement. Recognising this allows letting go of stories of nonhuman species or ecosystems that figure nature or ‘the environment’ as that thing over there. It also means no longer thinking about systems that are touched by humans as irredeemably sullied and worthless.

But if this is a dynamic that affects all nature writing in the Anthropocene, what’s special about fungal tales? Well, perhaps not least, the fact that around eight thousand species of fungi form mycorrhizal associations. According to Tsing, mycorrhizal associations between pines and mushrooming fungi appear in fossils dating back at least fifty million years. This is a story of co-constitutive entanglement of the longue, the very longue, durée. These relations between fungi and plants provide a parable for the collaboration of species, for a kind of mutualism, that we are very eager to hear. And perhaps we’re all the more eager to hear (or we should be) that the model for joyous multispecies entanglement is supplied by members of a phylum that has been roundly ignored, if not despised, in western cultures. It is perhaps the very essence of the story we’re just beginning to read: the thing we didn’t think matters does.