Mushrooms and their mycelium are quiet allies that are essential for our healthy existence. They are enigmatic, have a sense of humor, and socially as well as spiritually, bond together all that admire them. They have much to teach us.
If the ego is not regularly and repeatedly dissolved in the unbounded hyperspace of the Transcendent Other, there will always be slow drift away from the sense of self a part of nature’s larger whole.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting at my kitchen table, having coffee, when I suddenly noticed a new development in my bonsai plant. At the foot of the pygmy pine was sprouting, of all things, a mushroom. The physical recoil this realization triggered in me is beyond description. I nearly spilled my drink in my impulse to first spring away — then draw towards — this fungus. How had this happened? My god, how do mushrooms work?
As it turns out, the soil of my potted bonsai was rich with mycelium. Mycelium is the fungal “root,” if you will, the vegetative body of the organism, which can net, spread, propagate, and convey nutrients over great distances, eventually sprouting fruiting bodies — mushrooms. This meant that no matter how many little brown mushrooms I plucked out of my houseplant, more popped into place. Thus began my journey into mycophilia.
Being a fickle bedroom hobbyist, I sacrificed the bonsai, relinquishing 1,000 years of Japanese history to my fungal visitor. After all, what is more ancient, more venerable, than a mushroom? Fungi were the first organisms to come to land, and survived the cataclysmic asteroid impacts of geological history — visitors to our planet 420 million years ago would have encountered a landscape dominated by 30-foot-tall prototaxites, fungal pillars dwarfing the surrounding landscape. And, lest you think this kind of cyclopean ‘shroom has gone the way of the dinosaurs, the largest known organism on our planet today is a 2,400-year old, 2,200 acre honey mushroom mycelium in Eastern Oregon.
Furthermore, we’re more closely related to these behemoths than you might imagine: even though the animal kingdom branched off from its fungal counterpart some 600 million years ago, we still share over half our DNA with fungi. Historically, culturally, and biologically, we are incredibly close to mushrooms. That closeness can be exploited to our benefit: many powerful antibiotics against bacteria come from fungi, while anti-fungal antibiotics tend to harm us, precisely because of our intimately interlinked relationship with mushrooms. Some scientists posit reorganizing traditional biological classification to include a animalia-fungi superkingdom called “Opisthokontum.”
Far-out scholar Terrence McKenna, in his book Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge, took this connection further, arguing that the so-called missing link between our ancestors and language-using, symbol-toting Homo Sapiens (or Homo Spiritualis, as he puts it) is not an evolutionary phase but an interaction with entheogens — namely, “magic” mushrooms. McKenna argued that early man, foraging for food in the African grasslands, would have inevitably consumed varieties of fungal hallucinogen, triggering the semiotically complex transcendence (and the various perceptual advantages) of the psychedelic experience. It’s this psychosymbiotic mingling with the “vegetable mind” of the natural world that triggered those things which separate us from the animals: use of symbols, language, ritual, and abstract representation. Over centuries, this experience would have been ritualized, this dip into the howling Tao codified; what remains today are merely symbols, hidden in plain sight in many of the religious traditions of the world. This theory, now dubbed the “Stoned Ape Theory of Human Evolution,” is fascinating — and I whole-heartedly recommend McKenna’s book, which is essentially a natural history of the human relationship to drugs — but I will move on before my more rationally-minded readers start frothing at the mouth.
American mycologist Paul Stamets, in his 2008 Ted Talk, Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World, argues that the structure of mycelium is a neuromicrological network with universal properties. In the image below, I’ve placed an electron micrograph of fungal mycelium next to an image of dark matter. Beneath that, a visualization of the network structure of the Internet by Hal Burch and Bill Cheswick, courtesy of Lumeta Corporation.
Can you tell the difference?
Stamets, who calls mycelium “Earth’s Natural Internet,” puts it this way:
I believe the invention of the computer Internet is an inevitable consequence of a previously proven biologically successful model. The earth invented the computer internet for its own benefit, and we, now, being the top organism on this planet, [are] trying to allocate resources in order to protect the biosphere.
Going way out, dark matter conforms to the same mycelial archetype. I believe matter begets life, life becomes single cells, single cells become strings, strings become chains, chains network. And this is the paradigm that we see throughout the universe.
Stamets, being a mycologist, understands the fundamental structure of information, of the physical universe itself, as adhering to a “mycelial archetype.” To him, everything is mushroom — while McKenna, his visionary counterpart, reads the history of human culture through a mycophilic lens. Of course, both men experimented extensively with the mental states associated with ritualized consumption of a certain variety of mushroom, but this shouldn’t lessen the impact of their profound, macrocosmic reading of the humble fungus (although it’s interesting to think of mushrooms as doing their own psychedelic PR).
Mycelium, an intertwined network of cells permeating virtually all land masses of Earth, is not something to take lightly. It literally engulfs the soil beneath us in a sentient web, rising up beneath our footsteps, hungry for nutrients. There is something beautiful and horrifying, ancient and keenly technological about these organisms, a complexity it may take a psychedelically-informed, non-institutional mind to fully appreciate.
In any case, it beats a tiny tree.
Further Reading & Viewing:
Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, by Paul Stamets
“>Return of the Fungi, from Mother Jones Magazine
Artist Jae Rhim Lee’s Mushroom Death Suit
Buy home mushroom-growing kits from Fungi Perfecti