Rising Creek Digressions VI – a weekly bucolic blog by Tim Hare
This post inspired by Sam and Annie, for Celia Luna Hare, born May 25th, 2012
One and a half billion years ago, fungi made their way onto land, long before plants and animals. This is the biological kingdom that includes mold, mushrooms, and yeast. The famous Mycologist, Paul Stamets, points to research showing that they were a pioneer kingdom of “higher” life-forms, creating a land that was then habitable by plants and animals, because they created soil. As they made their way over the terrestrial earth, they blanketed every mineral surface of this newly constructed landmass with networks of mycelia, the “body” of many fungi. They wove their way through cracks in rocks and began to do what they do, break things down and re-purpose them for future life. During this time they were almost the sole inhabitants of the earth (excepting microscopic organisms), with massive mushrooms sprouting in the otherwise barren landscape.
This is not a Ken Kesey kind of vision, but one possible scientific history of the earth that we inhabit; and upon this blanket of mycelia, the rest of organic life has set up its existence. These mycelia are kind of like the nervous system of our planet, a system that has breadth, and ubiquitous reach and communication, but no real tangible form. In this vein, at least two other mycological mentors, Terrence Mckenna and Richard Evans Shultes associate the use of psilocybin mushrooms with (early) religious experiences, cognitive development, and even the evolution of human consciousness. But that digression is for another piece.
Don Alberto, a traditional Huachipaire medicine man in the Peruvian Amazon, showing of his harvest
Fungi are largely microscopic or even fully invisible phenomena, and for this reason they are barely understood in the life-sciences, perhaps less than any other kingdom. They live, almost entirely, inside of other things (soil, dead logs, skin tissue), only popping their heads out into this world to fruit, which is only a tiny fraction of their existence – most of their anatomy you can’t really see. Break apart soil that has mycelial growth and you can identify it as the powdery-white stuff that looks like cotton-candy. Mycelia is actually a weave of infinitely small hyphae that creep between everything from rock crevices to cell walls, passing nutrients and information back and forth. The Fungi kingdom is the macabre one, but for this it is also the one closest to new life. Fungi decompose everything that was alive, and ecosystems without it are only partly alive.
We have been testing mycelial benefits in the soil here at the Farmette, sprinkling fungus dust on our soil and new transplants. It is also coming in from the piles of mulch and compost dumped on the fields. This will fortify and activate the soil, stimulate nutrient uptake in the crops, and make a more resilient and pest-resistant ecosystem. In addition to soil health, mycelia has the potential for more miraculous feats, having been found consuming radioactive waste in Chernobyl, as well as eating plastics and petroleum in the Amazon, and returning each to benign states.
Mycelia, the back-end networks of mushrooms, are largely a mystery. But this isn’t surprising; all of biology is a mystery when we trace life back to its source – not just the how, what, and where of existence but the why, from what, and from where. Making a big jump to cosmology, where do we locate the wellspring of the infinite animate souls that pop forth into this world? Is there one? And what is it? If there is an omnipresent source for all life, then mycelia are an apt metaphor. A mushroom from a mycelial network is like the birth of a new soul into this world, stemming from the universal source of all souls, which is infinitely beautiful, pervasive, and intangible.
Or if you don’t want dive into religious ponderings, how about psychological? Consider the collective unconscious of Carl Jung. Mycelia, like the collective unconscious, are everywhere at once and nowhere in particular. They exist threaded through all other things, from whence the occasional fruit pops forth, bringing potential for new life and growth. Ideas and archetypal images, like mushrooms, pop up in our minds whether we live in Borneo or Boulder, and regardless of our upbringing or time in history.
The point is that each of these things is formless, largely inexplicable, and move from one place to the next as if through ether. Considering fungus beat all other complex life to land, formed the foundation for all higher life, and that it is the one kingdom most responsible for returning ashes and dust to new life, maybe there is more to this than just metaphor.