By Madeleine Dodge, Farm Fellow
Before arriving on the mountain, I had never given much thought to my relationship to mushrooms. I’d had your average interactions with certain fungi— like the portabellas that often got slimy in the bottom of my produce drawer or the chanterelles I splurged on at the grocery store. But until recently, my understanding of these small, squishy toadstools didn’t exceed far beyond the limited realm of my dinner plate. In my mind, a mushroom was a stagnant, inanimate thing just like any fruit or vegetable that made its way into my kitchen. I was so blinded by the human-centric perspective of “What can you do for me?” that I hadn’t stopped to ask what fungi could do in its own right.
A couple months ago, Charlie Aller, an AMI alum and owner of MushLuv, a mushroom company based in Charlottesville, Virginia, led a workshop on mushroom foraging and cultivation for the Fellows. And over the course of the day, it became very clear that deep in the forests, under decaying trees and soft, damp ground, fungi are busy leading complex, sophisticated, and intelligent lives. Mushrooms can create intricate networks of communication, defend themselves against predators, take part in sexually diverse and binary-breaking mating systems, thrive in the midst of disaster, and even aid in the clean-up of environmental destruction.
Over the course of the day, Charlie taught us how to look for mushrooms in the woods right outside our door, as well as how to cultivate our own mushroom crop. By plugging spawn (a sterilized grain with mushroom mycelium) into greenwood logs and gallon buckets, we created environments for shiitake, oyster, lion’s mane, and reishi mushrooms to grow. It will take time for our new logs to fruit harvestable mushrooms, but we are lucky to have logs from past cohorts which just recently fruited an abundant yield of shiitakes. And our lion’s mane bucket has already brought us a big, beautiful mushroom that is on its way to becoming a useful tincture.
In Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, Merlin Sheldrake writes,
“Fungi make worlds. They also unmake them. There are lots of ways to catch them in the act. When you cook mushroom soup, or just eat it. When you go out gathering mushrooms, or buy them. When you ferment alcohol, plant a plant, or just bury your hands in the soil; and whether you let a fungus into your mind, or marvel at the way that it might enter the mind of another. Whether you’re cured by a fungus, or watch it cure someone else; whether you build your home from fungi, or start growing mushrooms in your home, fungi will catch you in the act. If you’re alive, they already have.”
As much as we may want to believe it is us interfering in the lives of mushrooms, maybe it is the mushrooms who are popping out of old growth, emerging from their damp quarters, and interfering in our lives. And if that is the case, it is time we start treating them as much more than inert things, and instead recognize the multiplicitous contributions fungi make to our world.
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At one point in our foraging walk through the woods, Charlie told us about his practice of approaching the fungus he forages with a sentiment of inquiry rather than possession. “I find a way to ask the mushroom if it wants to be harvested, and if I feel in me that it doesn’t, I leave it be,” he told us, upon approaching a particularly impressive Fomes fomentarius growing out of a large oak tree. This particular fungus, which resembled a big, grey horse hoof, was probably decades old, Charlie observed. While there were other mushrooms along our walk that would make their way into our basket, it was clear the woody body of this wise old fungus would remain in the woods for many more cohorts of Fellows to find, admire, then pass by.
Now, as I poke my way through the woods or explore off the beaten path, I am much more careful where I step. I am aware of the vast network of mycelium running underfoot and the ecosystem that could not function without the help of even the smallest mushrooms.