My, My Mycelium

  Aspergillis  sp., bread mold, mycelia and spores visible

Aspergillis sp., bread mold, mycelia and spores visible

As much as I delight in mushrooms, I get a bit spooked by them, too. All that darkness! And spores. Slime, even. That's mycophobia, the (maybe?) irrational fear of fungi. I noted that even sunny Michael Pollan's writing took on a tone of mystery and eeriness when he described the mushroom part of the meal that caps the explorations in his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Turns out we may need some new ideas to save the world, though - so how about mycelium: "The mass of interwoven threads (hyphae) making up the vegetative body of a fungus." (http://library.thinkquest.org)

A marvelous friend with a beautiful mind sent me a link to a 17 minute illustrated online talk by Paul Stamets, and I watched it months ago, awed. You can watch it too: Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World. My friend, no mycophobe, ordered Stamets's book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, and read it.

She brought me the book, and I read the first three pages, and put it down for three months. It's not the writing, nor the ideas. Of the 28 reviewers on amazon.com, for example, 25 give it five stars out of five possible; the remaining three assign four stars to it.

The ideas in the book are startling and strange. So I'm reading it again, wondering if it can be true that an incomprehensible, friendly third realm of life, separate from but akin to both animals and plants, will help us repair and rebuild our damaged earth.

"Mushrooms save the world" - excellent comedy potential. But what if this learned man is right? How great would that be? And certainly mycelia and fungus in general are local -- local to every part of the world, apparently. So all of us can benefit if Stamets is right.

Here are some excerpts from Paul Stamets's writing. See what you think and feel, and if you decide to read the book along with me, let me know. I think it may be less spooky as a group project.

There are more species of fungi, bacteria, and protozoa in a single scoop of soil than there are plants and vertebrate animals in all of North America. And of these, fungi are the grand recyclers of our planet, the mycomagicians disassembling large organic molecules into simpler forms, which in turn nourish other members of the ecological community. Fungi are the interface organisms between life and death...

The activities of mycelium help heal and steer ecosystems on their evolutionary path, cycling nutrients through the food chain....

Without fungi, all ecosystems would fail.

I believe that mycelium is the neurological network of nature. Interlacing mosaics of mycelium infuse habitats with information-sharing membranes. These membranes are aware, react to change, and collectively have the long-term health of the host environment in mind. The mycelium stays in constant molecular communication with its environment, devising diverse enyzmatic and chemical responses to complex challenges. These networks not only survive, but sometimes expand to thousands of acres in size, achieving the greatest mass of any individual organism on the planet...

Animals are more closely related to fungi than to any other kingdom. More than 465 years ago we shared a common ancestry....

I believe that the mycelium operates at a level of complexity that exceeds the computational powers of our most advanced supercomputer. I see the mycelium as the Earth's natural Internet, a consciousness through which we might be able to communicate....

Because these externalized neurological nets sense any impression upon them, from footsteps to falling tree branches, they could relay enormous amounts of data regarding the movements of all organisms through the landscape....

A few recent studies support this novel perspective -- that fungi can be intelligent and may have potential as our allies, perhaps being programmed to collect environmental data, as suggested above, or to communicate with silicon chips in a computer interface. Envisioning fungi as nanoconductors in mycocomputers, Gorman (2005) and his fellow researchers at Northwestern University have manipulated mycelia of Aspergillis....

Photo Credit: NNehring - Thank you!

rona