Thinking Like a Mushroom
We find ourselves at a critical point in humanity. The infrastructure created over the last few hundred years is failing to meet our deep needs of true value and fulfillment, and this lifestyle brings us to face environmental challenges of global proportions: the mass extinction of non-human species, exploited and wasted resources, and a lack of intimate and meaningful human interactions. Now we desperately look for guidance to solve large-scale disconnects. Technological advances many times carry the weight of being our salvation, though the answer may be simpler. Studying mushrooms, their life cycle and role in the ecosystem, is part of the key to understand the language of nature and find a balance between our actions and the health of the planet.
We can relate to fungi in many ways, starting with biologically. We are more closely related to fungi than to plants. We both breathe oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. We both digest our food using enzymes, except fungi have an external stomach that breaks down their food before absorption. Fungi are very successful at surviving and thriving on Earth, and can be found on every continent, including Antarctica. The largest land organism is a Honey Cup Fungus in Oregon that spans 2,384 acres! So, there is much to be learned from how fungi thrive and perpetuate their species without throwing off the balance of the communities they share home with.
Plants enjoy the presence of fungi because mycelium allows individual plants in forests to “communicate” or, scientifically, to share nutrients through their root systems. We are just beginning to understand the role and importance of these plant- fungi connections. The long, spiderweb-like mycelial tracts expand a plant’s root range, decompose rocks to release minerals, and protect the plant through temperature and moisture variations. A healthy forest is completely interconnected, with mycelium allowing stronger trees to share carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous with weaker or younger trees throughout the forest.
Outside of the forest, there is strength in collaboration and organization. We face multinational corporations and political powers that have teamed up to exploit environment and human resources for their united cause of profit, and we have not organized ourselves against their agendas. How can we strengthen our network of awareness and resistance by reaching out to isolated groups whose voices and insights are not being heard? Metaphorically, how can distribute excess nutrients to create our own healthy, diverse forest of individuals? Service allows us to connect to each other and form meaningful human relationships. Fungi teach the value of collaboration over competition, in a society that trains us to seek advantage for only ourselves. This modality grows increasingly dangerous as our need for each other’s skills and perspectives to solve major problems becomes undeniable. Considering mass extinction, suburban sprawl, pesticides, would our interactions with non-human life be considered symbiotic, or domineering? Given their inclination to symbiotic relationships, it seems fungi understand the importance of sustaining and supporting what they need to survive. What do you care about on this planet outside of your family, and how do you ensure its’ survival?
As the greatest alchemists on the planet, mushrooms break down old, dead structures and transform them into simpler forms. They support non-fungal life by providing essential nutrients accessible to all. Without fungi and other decomposers we would have a build-up of useless matter, unhealthy and prohibitive to life. Recycling matter, ideas, and paradigms that are no longer useful to civilization is a major lesson from fungi we can adopt. Failure to manage our waste stream can be seen worldwide: massive floating garbage patches in the oceans, overflowing landfills, and unequal food distribution around the world. There are also paradigms that limit or prohibit members to contribute to society: homelessness, elders segregated in nursing homes, and our complicated judicial system that requires a lawyer to translate. If an institution is failing to serve us any longer we must break it down to its simpler form.
Mushrooms show us that ideal projects, creations, and designs have a higher number of uses (outputs) than requirements (inputs), in order to achieve a renewable cycle. Outputs from cultivating our allies in Kingdom Fungi include: a source of fast-growing protein, strong medicine for cancer and rites of passage, ecosystem stabilizer, and contamination clean-up. Using fungi as a design guide, non-renewable materials like single-use plastics, nuclear power, and dirty industrial practices would no longer be perpetuated solely because they are cheap. They require too much energy and risk without giving multiple functions in return. Their negative impact on all life including environment, the unborn, and non-human species would be wisely considered. Unless we honor a partnership with fungi, the build-up of waste from these practices will remain with us for eternity. Assuming the role of the fungus, straddling life and death, is a perspective to help us see clearly the impact of our creations and destructions on a long-term scale. Luckily, mushrooms are opportunists that are evolving to eat our troublesome wastes, a multitude of new research shows that fungi will break down our man-made toxins, giving us hope to un-do our planetary contamination issues.
Personally, to think like a mushroom is a daily practice that allows one to thrive in all settings. To actively transition back to balance brings an inherent lightness to one’s lifestyle. This movement is not a sacrifice – but a freedom. The focus is simplicity, attaining the most outputs for one input, minimal waste, and respectful support for all life. Start with being prepared for your day: Bringing your own cup, utensils, and bag when you go out. When traveling, bring snack foods that can be composted, meaning returned to the soil. Practice living simply and minimally. Think of what you really need to survive compared to what you actually consume. Many well-known brands at every corner store can be traced back to global exploitation, like human rights violations and environmental destruction. By prioritizing to buy second-hand items and to make and grow even a small portion of your own, we shift the focus back to personal fulfillment and community support. One organized free market or stuff swap can circulate “nutrients” to many in need and build relationships with people, not brands. We shift our dependence back to each other instead of too-powerful profit minded companies. By raising our level of preparedness we minimize our confrontations with the old paradigms. We can choose not to perpetuate disharmony by buying, have patience and you will find another route to acquiring this product.
These thoughts are meant to galvanize a radical perspective shift, and be an opening to a deep dialogue between humans, mushrooms, and nature. There are so many other applications of fungi to anthropocentric issues in addition to those mentioned here, and including fungal biological processes. Through mushrooms, our literal ancestors in that they have inhabited this planet far longer than us, we can learn the language of nature and open ourselves to untold knowledge.
About Megan Szrom
Megan enjoys healing inner and outer landscapes through mediums of art, music, and guerrilla gardening. Her love for the Earth as a student of Kingdom Fungi has taken her far and wide. Her cultivation projects include mycoremediation of oil spills in the Amazon with the Amazon Mycorenewal Project, a food forest on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and with the city of Berkeley to filter contamination from the water supply with Bay Area Radical Mycology. Please feel free to contact her with ideas, feedback, and potential international mushroom projects!
Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.