It’s Not Magic: Mushrooms Can Change Our Experience

In case you ever thought a haiku was something I tossed off in a moment after looking at a picture — something I composed and posted in just a few minutes, consider this:

It took me two and a half hours to write today’s haiku. Do you want to know what I learned about mushrooms while writing this haiku? Because they’re fairly amazing.

(Image credit: Didier, a.k.a. didier.bier @ Flickr)

The mushrooms growing on this cone are simply fruit — the outgrowth of a significantly less apparent organism. Like the shadowy few that stand behind the play of world politics, this organism stands in the background and performs the unseen transactions, deals with the silent partners, hides all of the secrets . . .

and the potential of its power, boy, is really what impresses me.

See the little white hairs growing at the base of the mushroom? They call that mycelium. Sometimes it’s visible, and sometimes it’s too small to see; but this is the powerhouse behind the more apparent fungus that is sometimes eaten, sometimes toxic, and often the bane of picky horticulturalists. It turns out that getting rid of mushrooms is just like plucking an apple from a tree, though, because they’re growing from mycelium that suffuses the surrounding earth. And although some find them annoying, very few mushroom varieties are parasitic, in effect feeding from live organisms; most are saprophytic, which means they live on dead or decaying material. They are the forest’s recycling system, transforming old carbon-rich organic material into fresh soil.

And oh, they get extensive. In Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, author and mushroom expert Paul Stamets describes a 2,400-acre site in Oregon that

“had a contiguous growth of mycelium before logging roads cut through it. Estimated at 1,665 football fields in size and 2,200 years old, this one fungus has killed the forest above it several times over, and in so doing has built deeper soil layers that allow the growth of ever-larger stands of trees.”

There’s a case against deforestation, am I right? Point one, nature does it for us; point two, why not just grow natural plastic and take some of that wood out of the equation?

Oh wait, did you know about the plastic?

It’s no secret that plastic is made from oil and it takes a bajillion years to break down. Everyone knows that’s a problem. Enter bioplastics: technically not plastics, but similar in behavior and function, they are newer materials that could replace plastics across entire industries. They’re environmentally friendly; they’re grown, they’re biodegradable, they’re recyclable, and they’re made from mycelium, those mats of tendrils that transport nutrients from decaying organic matter to their fungal fruit. According to Marc Gunther’s article in The Guardian Can Mushrooms Replace Plastic?

“They can produce packaging, home insulation, fiberboard for furniture, even a surfboard.”

Mushroom surfboards? Sign me up, dude!

So here’s the simple list — the upshot of why making plastics from mushrooms is an awesome idea:

  • The base material is plentiful and inexpensive — crop waste, like corn stalks, are bought from American farmers, giving them additional revenue and saving buckets of ducats over the precious oil used to make traditional plastics. Could this bring down fuel prices as well?
  • Because it’s grown and not drilled, it’s renewable.
  • Because it’s organic it can break down naturally, in effect biodegradable.
  • Because it’s biodegradable, it can help alleviate waste issues — specifically, burgeoning landfills and the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch.

In addition, mycelium can be used to:

  • break down soil contaminants, such as oil and chemical spills, in a process known as mycoremediation;
  • remove contaminants like chemicals, bacteria, and heavy metals from water in a process called mycofiltration;
  • prevent soil erosion due to water runoff, which is another application of mycofiltration;
  • enhance crop yields and forest sustainability — mycoforestry;  and
  • control insect populations — mycopesticides.

I get excited about stuff like this – essentially, we could use the Earth to restore, renew, and rescue the Earth. Everything we need is right here, homegrown. And the following videos also got me excited:

Yes, I’m excited to live in a magical world where every day we move toward improving our symbiotic relationship with it. This is stewardship;

and thus your adventure may continue. Go live it.

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23 thoughts on “It’s Not Magic: Mushrooms Can Change Our Experience”

  1. I love mushrooms and have been a huge proponent for the education of this amazing species. =) Great post, thanks for giving us some insight into your creative process, I actually am one of the readers who thought you simply pulled your poems out of thin air ! =)

    1. Clan Ross is heading to Seattle and Portland this Summer for my first surfing experience – thanks to the article you sent I suggested to Mme. Ross that we stop by Fungi Perfecti if it’s within reasonable reach of out route. Thanks for that, and thanks for reading!

  2. This is great information – spread the word! The whole plastics thing is somewhat disturbing so it’s great to know there’s an alternative…now, how to sell it to oil-loving governments…

    1. One block at a time, I suppose. 😀

      Actually, I bet the governments would be behind it because they tend to espouse a motivation to have and reserve oil for fuel, rather than plastic production. The less that goes into plastics, the more that can be used for motor oil, fuel oil, gas, and diesel.

      1. I found the idea as a plastic alternative particularly compelling, but I do worry that focus is much stronger on corn cellulose right now, more particularly that corn crops are already entrenched with the oil industry. I would like to see the effort succeed, but it will take a lot of work.

          1. Oh, I think we should– corn cellulose is biodegradable (supposedly), but I don’t think it has anywhere near the durability of petrol plastics. Yet… I think it’s going to be a hard sell. Not to the average consumer, but to the corporate Powers That Be.

            1. I think the bio-plastics would be good enough to replace single-use items though, even if some R&D would be needed to get it to perform acceptably in its function, and there’s our biggest bugaboo in plastic use right there — but yeah, I hear the “hard sell” thing; although I have the impression that corporations are more flexible than we might be giving them credit for.

              1. Sure… it’s all context, and I’m sure a lot depends on whom you speak to. I remember from my environmental studies that some folks are an impatient lot, and don’t consider all the variables implementation takes.

                  1. My father used to be a Hanford auditor, so, yep, I understand that one. One of his biggest frustrations was trying to help workers comply with DOE policies that had been laden down with so much legalese and bureaucractic language as it was interpreted on down to individual departments.

  3. Thanks for such a fascinating and informative and yes! wonderfully exciting article/piece on mushrooms!

    Fantastic job – and yeah, I *know* you put alot of thought and research into your efforts – so points to you 🙂

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