Recently a friend of mine was telling me how jealous he was that I got to spend so much time in the woods, and how I must have so much time to think out there. His job requires a constant, mindless attention that leaves no room to think about much else. I was happy then to tell him that I operate much the same way in my workplace, despite what a person might guess.
At risk of trying to sound like some Zen master, I don’t often do much deep thinking in the forest, but rather just try to embrace it as an experience. There are practical matters too that concern me more: such as what lies just beyond my line of site, or if that swamp is really as dry as it looks, or if that elk I saw earlier really was eyeing me with bad intent.
All of this is not to say the experience of nature is something that just slips away when I get back in the car and head home; indeed that is precisely where it becomes integrated: in the aftermath. A very appropriate analogy would be: ‘not seeing the forest for the trees’, and once I leave the forest I can think more clearly about the trees that compose it.
I have heard it said that “There are no contradictions in nature.” That would be a great debate topic, but it does ring true. I think most people operate under that assumption, weather they consider it or not, and I do as well. For the sake of argument let’s say it is true, what then can we learn from nature in Her perfection?
Well, the lessons could fill libraries with countless volumes, but I feel best qualified to comment on one of the least examined: the kingdom of fungi. In the great empire that is Nature, the kingdom of fungi is as critical as it is unappreciated. Much of the work fungi perform is invisible to us, figuratively and literally: spores are microscopic yet ever present in the environment and trillions of miles of mycelium run all over the earth just below the surface. Let us then try to unravel this giant mass of hyphae and see where it might lead and what can be gleaned by following its path.
In a recent piece I did on Honey Mushrooms I alluded to the idea of mycophobia: the fear of mushrooms. It may seem like a silly idea, but I can tell you after years of selling mushrooms at farmer’s markets: the population is quite divided on the subject of fungi. Often just the sight of our mushrooms, which I admit are not the ‘normal’, say white button types that people are more familiar with, would provoke a visceral disgust in some passersby. Still others would react with wonder, confusion, and many would question if they were edible (as if we could or would sell poisonous mushrooms at a farmer’s market).
We could always expect some sort of strong reaction though, and I think this is based on the mysteriousness of mushrooms. It is often said that fear is born from a lack of understanding, and if we look at Asian cultures; who devote enormous resources to studying mushrooms, and compare that to the Western world; we can perhaps make the assumption that our cultural heritage has led to some of the present fear, disgust and in the best case apathy, toward fungi.
British culture, which it could be argued gave birth to and certainly spread a new global culture, is notoriously mycophobic. Mushrooms were considered ‘toad stools’, belonging to the slimier creatures who a gentleman ought ignore, or even try to exterminate.
Surely some of this comes from the cool, wet climate in the region where fungi does thrive, often in inconvenient or even dangerous places for humans. I wouldn’t argue that mildew on the sill, or the insidious Aspergillus mold in the grain store is something to celebrate, but it is unfair to blame an entire kingdom for the acts of a few of its more troublesome residents.
A mycophobe my say: “Eeww, mushrooms grow in dark corners on dead things, or worse: shit!” Though I would heartily argue that they breathe new life into dead things and ‘waste’, exploiting unwanted resources and preparing them to be used by other organisms.
If you wanted to get metaphysical with it: what are mushrooms really, but a symbol of the triumph of life over death; a rarified bloom, whose roots run deep into the underworld. They are a token of a life force, so strong that it can even thrive in the most unappealing conditions.
Life and growth, by definition, require death and decay. It seems almost a platitude and I admit it took some consideration to even state it myself. It’s an idea where the true meaning is not immediately evident, and I think it’s easier to ignore or feign understanding than really consider it.
I have always been of the opinion that Nature is Man’s greatest teacher. For what was there besides nature, in those early years of human development? I can only lament the loss of the wisdom she so readily provided for millennia, and the hubris of people today who ignore it and narcissistically think we know better.
What perennial lessons, as true and undeniable as a stand of stately timber, have we hastily clear cut to make way for a more modern way of thinking? Well, I hope to show at least a few of them in the musings to come.
So for this series of articles: ‘Mushrooms: Thriving in Decay’ I will examine three different species of fungi in the hopes of shining some light into the shady forests where they dwell, so we might be able to get a better understanding of them and see how they relate to life in the human realm.
It is not my wish to be a social commentator, but it would be hard to argue that these are not troubled times for humanity. There are several negative tendencies in our culture that I think can be blamed for these troubles and I hope to show in these following articles how fungi are a living example of a healthier way to be in the world.
The first will be: “Turkey Tails: Lemonade from the Lemon that is the Emerald Ash Borer”, examining Trametes versicolor, the ‘Turkey Tail Mushroom’, and its role in the environment. Following that will be “Consider the Lobster Mushroom”, an essay on Hypomyces lactifluorum, the unique and delicious ‘Lobster Mushroom’, and concluding with ‘Finger on the Button Mushroom’ which is concerned with mushroom cultivation and the ‘taming’(or failure to tame) of nature. So keep an eye on michiganmushrooms.net as I add the parts of this series to our blog each week.