‘The Earth’s natural Internet’

“Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World,” Paul Stamets (2005)

I ordered this book shortly after seeing “Fantastic Fungi.” I was a bit leery of the title, which seemed to drift toward hyperbole. But after reading the book, I’m wondering if the title might be understated.

Paul Stamets, the author of Mycelium Running and a multitude of other books on the science and cultivation of mushrooms, was featured prominently in Fantastic Fungi. He’s a sort of myco-evangelist, extolling the virtues of fungi in all their forms.

Myceleium is “the Earth’s natural internet, a consciousness with which we might be able to communicate,” Stamets writes. I would have thought that completely batshit a year ago. But the more I read, the more fascinated I am. And when Stamets started making remarkable claims for fungi’s ability to change our lives, it took only a moment to remember that penicillin is a type of fungus …

At one point, Stamets makes the argument that mushrooms can be a line of national defense, citing fungi that can battle pox and other potentially weaponized viruses.

“With the threat of bioterrorism from weaponized viruses, a readily available, inexpensive, broad-spectrum antiviral antidote would serve the public health,” he notes.

The book references the SARS virus in China just as we are seeing another virus emerge from Asia, one that is believed to be rooted in interactions with animals. In China, the viruses appear to be jumping from wild animal population to humans. What if the mushroom boasting the right antiviral properties to thwart the next pandemic is on the verge of extinction in some beleaguered old growth forest?

The book is incredibly utilitarian, discussing how fungi can be used to restore the environment, combat viruses, and battle pests. It also offers tips on cultivation and consumption of mushrooms.

Stamets goes on to describe concrete examples of how, for instance, a mycelial mat can be created to filter runoff that might be tainted with animal feces before it enters a watershed. I have two outflow pipes from a septic system for Dove Cottage, and I’m now thinking about creating a mycoremediation project in each spot to help cleanse effluent from those pipes before it flows down the hill and ultimately ends up in Sugar Creek. The septic system passed inspection when we bought the house, but it’s old and grandfathered in and I honestly have no idea what it might or might not be leaching into the local aquifer. A project like this wouldn’t be difficult and it would be a great chance to put fungi to work for me. Fungi are designed to break things down, and their power to do so is astounding, from leaf litter to snags to downed trees. It will turn the nastiest of things into food, breaking them down and making them less toxic. Oil. Plastic. Even the radiation at Chernobyl can be food for fungi.

Random notes/learnings:

  • Saprophytic — Fungi that decompose dead or dying matter. Most gourmet and medical mushrooms fall into this category.
  • Parasitic — These fungi used to be seen as blight, killing trees, but now foresters see them as playing a key role in culling sick or dead trees. Honey mushrooms fall into this category. Most examples are microfungi. Some saprophytic mushrooms can have parasitic qualities, often when growing on trees that are environmentally or otherwise stressed.
  • Mycorrhizal (myco = mushroom; rhizal means relating to roots). These partner with plants and live symbiotically. Can make it more efficient for trees to intake nutrients and can expand the area where nutrients are drawn from. Can connect the forest in a network, permitting even different species of tress to share nutrients with each other via that network. Examples: Boletus, Chanterele, Matsutake.
    • Ectomycorrhizal — exterior sheaths of roots
    • Endomycorrhizal — interior root cells
  • The common button mushroom at the supermarket is Agaricus bisporus
  • Phytophthora ramorum — fast-growing cause of sudden oak disease. Can kill a tree in a few days; can kill an ancestral forest in a few weeks. Its evolutionary strategy is to grow fast because the host for some parasites can be short lived …
  • — Endophytes are benevolent non-mycorrhizal fungi that partner with plants.
  • I saw interesting parallels between logging — an extractive industry in the Pacific Northwest — and coal, which has devastated Appalachia with its extractive practices. Timber companies are selling their land in the Pacific Northwest because they realize third-growth trees are not going to come anywhere close to first and second. The soil is being destroyed as they replant without the restorative benefit of dead trees decomposing on the forest floor with the help of fungi. Similar situation with coal. As the resource is tapped out or no longer is economically attractive enough to pursue, the extractors sell the denuded land and move on like locusts.
  • Frank Herbert, author of Dune, apparently was greatly influenced by mushroom life cycles and images when he wrote his science fiction classic. Stamets knows Herbert and says he came up with the idea of creating a mushroom slurry and dumping it on the base of trees, which resulted in chanterelles growing on trees younger than 10. Herbert also had an affinity for psilocybin mushrooms …
  • Using oil infused with fungi spores to lubricate a chainsaw will distribute the fungi everywhere you cut. Brilliant scheme.
  • Mushrooms have to be cooked if you want to get the full nutritional value. Cooking breaks down their tough cell walls …
  • fomes fomentarius, (amadou or tinder conk)
    • “Remnants of this mushroom have been found at Stone Age sites dating back to 11,600 BCE. Hippocrates wrote about its use for cauterizing wounds. Otzi the 5,000+ year old ice man found in the Alps had this on him.
    • A hole can be burrowed in tinder cork, packed with embers and it will smolder for hours. “As our prehistoric ancestors migrated from Africa into European birch forests, their possession of this knowledge ensured their survival,” Stamets writes. “The fire keepers of the clan, in a position of enormous importance for the clan’s survival, knew how to find and prepare these mushrooms.”
  • Definition of farinaceous (which Stamets uses to describe the odor of certain strains of mycelium).
    • having a mealy texture or surface
    • containing or rich in starch
  • Breathing morels while they’re cooking can be dangerous …
  • Psilocybe is ancient Greek for bald head
  • Mycelium has only one ‘L.’ My original post had it consistently misspelled mycellium throughout. I was looking at my bookshelves, trying to pick out my next victim, and I saw the spine of Stamets’ book: Mycelium Running. Du-oh!
  • (My next victim, btw, turned out to be Edith Grossman‘s translation of Don Quixote. Just started, but already impressed.)

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