Meet Maya Elson:
Myco Nerd of the Ages!
Maya Elson is currently living in Santa Cruz, California where she is the Program Coordinator of Wild Child Santa Cruz, a nature immersion program for homeschoolers. Her passion for education shines as she weaves mycology into science and ecology lessons for middle-schoolers and beyond to learners of every age. Maya’s work as an educator and as a community organizer led her to co-found Radical Mycology and the Radical Mycology Convergence. Her unwavering desire to create a positive change in the world is truly and deeply inspirational. Maya brings the fun and silliness on even the cloudiest of moments- We are honored and excited to have Maya Elson as November’s Womyn of the Month, and of course as part of the Female & Fungi Community at large.
Interview with Maya Elson:
Female & Fungi: We’ve heard you have some epic mushroom jokes…. mind sharing one?
Maya Elson: What happens when you leave your jacket in my yard?
FF: We don’t know… what happens?
ME: It becomes mycota!
FF: Hahahaha thanks for sharing that!
ME: I think that humor makes this sort of work sustainable. Also having a genuine relationship and connection with those that you work with and a sense of community – people will show up to meetings if they aren’t boring and humor is a great way to lighten things up.
FF: How did you become interested in being a community organizer?
ME: I’ve been organizing since I was 17, I guess its just what I do. I don’t always enjoy it, and I don’t think it comes to me naturally, but there is such a lack of good organizers out there doing good things that it feels really worthwhile to do. There are so many cool things that could happen if there were just organizers to make them happen! Besides, organizing events and campaigns is a great way to join with people with similar values, its a special type of bond that you form, and it helps you grow as an individual.
FF: What and when were some of the first events you were helping to organize?
ME: I got my feet wet organizing against the war in Iraq when I was in high school. In college I coordinated an environmental student group, and organized various protests, educational events and helped with campaigns. Over the years I’ve worked with various Earth First! and Rising Tide groups in different places. With Radical Mycology, we started out just having meetings and scheming about all the cool things we’d like to do. That led us to doing lots of mushroom cultivation and myco-permaculture projects.
FF: What is Radical Mycology?
ME: Radical Mycology is a concept that means something slightly different to each person involved, which I think is part of the beauty of it. The term allows for a creative reinvention of our relationship with fungi, and empowers us to think outside of the box (or outside of the spawn block). Radical Mycology co-founder Peter McCoy and I see the use of fungal species for environmental betterment as an extension of “radical” or “deep” ecology, which considers all beings as having an inherent value and interdependence. Through the use of fungi to enact change, we are attempting to challenge assumptions about the importance of the fungal kingdom in an effort to help shift our relationship to the Earth toward greater harmony. One of the things that distinguishes us from some of the other things going on in mycology is that the kind of mycology work that we’re supporting is based on an anti-oppression analysis and doesn’t rely as heavily on the globalized industrial capitalist system. We’re also learning skills (such as myco-gardening, mushroom cultivation, mushroom identification, mushroom paper-making) that help us live outside of that system. We seek to build a radical mycological movement that is a part of larger congruent struggles.
When you start experimenting, its amazing how much cool stuff you can do without needing money or status, but its limited what you can do without any community. Radical Mycology is about harnessing the power of community as much as it’s about harnessing the power of fungi.
FF: How did it get its start and how has it evolved over time?
ME: If I had to pick an exact moment, it would be at a pizza party/meeting in Olympia, WA, seven years ago. I was quickly becoming bemushroomed, and wanted other people to work with. I was friends with Peter McCoy, but didn’t know that he was also into mushrooms until we got to talking at this pizza party. We soon formed a group with other folks who were interested and knowledgeable about fungi, and called it the Olympia Mycelial Network.
We were really inspired (and still are) by the work of the people at Fungi Perfecti, but wanted there to be a more grassroots, non-commercial alternative for people to get into this stuff. We knew that we wanted to act like mycelium, and create a network between projects and people. Mycelium has this incredible unexplainable intelligence that involves no centralized brain or what we typically refer to as “conscious” thinking. Each individual strand of hyphae gathers information about its environment and the organism as a whole may adapt accordingly. Some studies have shown that fungi can share information with the plants that it has a mycorrhizal relationship with, and let them know if there is a drought or pest coming. Fungi have also been shown to redistribute resources, both to their mycorrhizal partners and throughout the forest floor. Coming from a background of work in the environmental justice field, I was familiar with the struggle between centralized power (which we now commonly refer to as the 1%) and the efforts of a movement that seeks to decentralize power, and redistribute wealth. As humans, we have a decision-making body, our brain, that gathers information from our environment and uses a nervous system and vascular system to maintain networks of information resources throughout our bodies. But when we share food, share knowledge, share love, and support each other, we are creating a network where each of us is a node. These types of networks are more resilient, and through collective thought processes we can make the wisest decisions.
Those of us in the early days of the Olympia Mycelial Network were trying to put together a zine, but the project was too daunting and lay dormant for a while. Then one day Peter showed me something amazing. It was a zine with the title “Radical Mycology”. I immediately loved the name and got to work editing and revising his work. The zine spread further than we ever imagined it would, and we soon realized that there are a lot of people out there with a strong interest in this stuff. I started the Radical Mycology website, which also garnered a good bit of attention.
A few years later I was visiting my parents and having a conversation with my mom in the kitchen about these ideas and the goals of our work. She suggested that we have a big conference to bring together all of these people to facilitate the growth of this network. Soon after, Peter and I began organizing the first Radical Mycology Convergence. We held a second Radical Mycology Convergence the year after, and are now in the process of organizing the third.
Over time, the website has evolved and expanded quite a bit, and is becoming a better vehicle for what I like to call mycelial networking. Keep an eye out over the next few months for some exciting new stuff on there.
Since the first zine, we’ve put out more literature including an updated version of the Radical Mycology zine. I’m really excited to announce an incredible new resource called “Mushroom Cultivation for Remediation”, which is a big pamphlet that you can download for free with corresponding youtube videos. It’s the best free resource on low-tech mushroom cultivation that I know of. I think it changes the game for folks wanting to learn about mushroom cultivation who don’t wanna spend lots of money on books, courses or cultivation supplies. All of our publications can be found on our website.
FF: Where do you see Radical Mycology evolving to in the future?
ME:We have been working hard on a big new project that will help to build this network in a new and substantial way. We will be kicking off an online crowdfunding campaign at the end of November to fund the production and publishing of a book on the uses of mushrooms and other fungi for personal, societal, and ecological change. We’ll be going on a tour around the country (and hopefully around the world) sharing knowledge and networking with folks, and recording research and stories for the book. Needless to say, I’m super duper excited! We’ve been wanting to do this and have been working towards it for a long time now, and I’m really stoked that its actually happening. We know there’s a lot of people out there who want to support this kind of work, so please stay tuned if you are interested for the official launch of that campaign!
Beyond that my dream is for a Radical Mycology community center where we could have a library, office, workshop space, myco-demonstration projects, shared mushroom lab and spawn and culture bank. It would require a lot of commitment and effort from the local community, and involve getting some funding for rent and potentially for staff.
I think there’s an immense potential for growth in this movement, and I imagine that we will keep having more and more local Radical Mycology groups pop up around the world.
FF: You mentioned the Radical Mycology Convergence earlier, can you elaborate on that?
ME: From our website, “The Radical Mycology Convergence is a unique gathering of mycologists, mushroom enthusiasts, and Earth stewards coming together to share skills and information on the numerous benefits of the fungal kingdom for humans and the planet. The RMC is a weekend long event consisting of workshops, presentations, and various mycoremediation installations. Beyond the skills shared, the RMC also works to build a community among like-minded mycophiles (aka mushroom lovers) and community-based earth healers to collaborate on remediation and restoration projects during and after the RMC.
FF: How many womyn presenters are involved?
ME: The majority of people I’ve worked with on Radical Mycology stuff are men. At the first Radical Mycology Convergence, there was only one workshop given by a woman, which was a serious bummer. It was partly our fault as organizers, but mostly it was just a matter of who showed up to teach. I felt like I had to be visible and have a strong presence as an organizer so the event wouldn’t be alienating to other women.
Some of this imbalance I think is situational, but some of it is also indicative of some deeper issues. Men are often given more encouragement in the field of science. Also, there are lots of statistics that show a significant pay disparity between men and women, which means that men will often get paid more for doing the same job as a woman, and its easier for them to get high-paying jobs. Also, its traditionally the woman’s job to raise children. This means that men are more likely to have the extra time and money to do mushroom projects, although how much it manifests in reality with mushroom stuff I can’t say.
We had a much better gender balance during the second convergence, which I was really happy about. It was mostly just what happened organically, although we did put some effort in to it.
FF: Beyond Radical Mycology, what has been your experience of communication between men and womyn in mycology?
ME: I’ve had a lot of experiences, and I’m hesitant to make too many generalizations. Mostly I feel supported by the men that I’ve worked with, and they’re happy to have a woman on the team. Every once in a while, I get the experience of talking to people (more often men), who love to just talk and talk about mushroom stuff and don’t make space in the conversation for me to contribute, and interrupt me when I try to. I think men are quicker to see themselves as experts, and get so used to being the leader or teacher that its hard for them to step back in collaborative learning spaces.
FF: In general, what do you think are some of the challenges for womyn in the field?
ME: Many of the challenges for women are the same as for men, but women are less often associated with science in our culture and often have to do more to prove themselves in the field. There are some big names in the field of applied mycology who have brilliant, super supportive wives that don’t get as much of the credit for their contributions. I think there’s a much larger challenge out there for people who are transgendered, which is an experience I can’t speak to on a personal level but is an important thing to address.
FF: How would you encourage more womyn, trans or non-gender conforming folks to get involved?
ME: I’m super excited about Female and Fungi, I think being involved with this group is a great way to go. I’m really looking forward to having a women and trans track at the next RMC. Besides that I would say: be a role model of a confident mycologist; work in solidarity with other women in the field; strategically call-out patriarchal behaviors when you see them; and open your heart to your true potential as an earth healer.
FFF: We are super excited about that track at the convergence as well! How else do you see the third convergence improving?
ME: This movement wants to be big! If we have the capacity for them, I think there are a huge number of people who would come. So that’s exciting and overwhelming. We are also always in the process of building networks with our allies in the realms on environmental justice, sustainability and ecological restoration, and we’re hoping that we build stronger connections with this next RMC.
FF: And how would someone who is interested get involved?
ME: Good question! We need lots of help. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know how you’d like to contribute or just ask to be put on our email list. Also, keep an eye out on the Radical Mycology website for more news about our upcoming book and crowdfunging campaign!
FF: Now that we know a little bit about how you began organizing, how has your leadership role evolved over the years?
ME: Over the years, I’ve gained skills as an organizer that have allowed me to fill more roles in the organizations I’m involved in. In June of this year we had a 10-day course called “The Art and Science of Mycorenewal” at a conference center near Santa Cruz. I organized it mostly by myself, with support from Mia Maltz (my personal hero) and the Amazon Mycorenewal Project team. I also led a few of the classes. It was a very empowering experience to manage all of the pieces, and watch a vision emerge into a reality.
FF: Are you currently involved in any mycoremediation research of your own?
ME: Right now I’m working on some motor oil digesters that use fungi to decompose the toxins. I’ve also got lots of myco-permaculture projects happening; I guess all of them are experimental to some degree!
FF: How did you get introduced to mycology in the first place?
ME: I was living in Olympia, and totally impressed with the fungal diversity. I started reading Mycelium Running, dreamt about mushrooms coming out of my body, met other mushroom nerds and there was no turning back.
FF: Those dreams must have been super intense- What do you love so much about mycology anyways?
ME: I just love being around mushrooms! They make me feel good. They are very healing. I love mushroom nerds. I love sharing that part of us that’s called to the fungi and working together to celebrate them.
FF: It can be intimidating when you first start reading about the wonders of mushrooms to really taking the step to become involved with the mycological community. If you had advice to give a newbie in the field, what would it be?
ME: Just start doing stuff. Don’t worry too much about knowing everything at first. Start out on a small-scale, get your mycelium strong and healthy, and when you’re ready, expand outwards.
FF: Do you think peer-to-peer mentorship can play a role in the mycological community, and how so?
ME: Part of the reason we started Radical Mycology was to foster and support mentorship, collaborative learning, and build community around ecological healing with fungi. We believe that this kind of information has a crucial role to play in the movement for ecological justice, and it should be available to anyone, regardless of whether they have money, social connections or access to a university. We see this as the people’s mycology movement. We engage in practices of anti-oppression, grassroots organizing, and focus on Do-It-Yourself or Do-It-Together strategies. Within this model of organizing we don’t put our teachers up on pedestals, or centralize our decision-making processes around them (although we are very eager to learn and gather advice from them). Instead, we seek to provide the opportunities for more people to participate in the learning and teaching processes, and decentralize our decision-making.
FF: Are you a mentor?
ME: I’ve been a nature mentor for a lot of kids over the years, as an auntie, private mentor and teacher naturalist. Right now, I’m the Program Coordinator of a nature immersion program for homeschoolers, and I get to work with kids over a longer period of time and help them develop their relationship with nature. I feel its important to bring in the role of fungi when teaching ecology; its such an essential part of life that’s often forgotten. Besides, mushrooms are really fun to look at, grow, and experiment with. They’re good for getting people stoked on nature.
FF: Where would you send educators to learn more about how to incorporate fungi into their current curriculum?
ME: There’s this website from England called Fungi4Schools that I’m stoked on and an organization that has a mycology education kit that you can buy online but it doesn’t come with a grow-kit or anything. I would be excited about developing a curriculum and grow-kit combination to work with students more and do traveling presentations to help teachers get set up with projects. There are some mycologists currently working on projects like these but they are mostly in the beginning stages- I would suggest starting by contacting mycologists in your local community.
FF: Have you ever received advice from fungi?
ME: Yeah- Anything can be decomposed, you just need the right enzymes and some time.
FF: And last, but totally not least, if you could be a mushroom, which one would you be and why?
ME: Gomphidius glutinosus. I don’t know why i just like them- they remind me of myself- the way they look and the way they feel.
We want to thank Maya for being a fantastic interviewee and inspiration to us all!
Don’t forget to stay tuned for updates and news on the new Radical Mycology book.
To check out the Radical Mycology Website: http://www.radicalmycology.com
To contact Radical Mycology email them at: email@example.com
To contact Maya directly email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org