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Mushrooms: Ancient Superheroes That Could Save The Modern World

The mysterious power of mushrooms has been explored by humanity for thousands of years as our fungal companions played the role of traditional medicine, forest-inhabiting superfood, and commonplace nutritional staple...

The mysterious power of mushrooms has been explored by humanity for thousands of years as our fungal companions played the role of traditional medicine, forest-inhabiting superfood, and commonplace nutritional staple in diets across the globe. But at some point in recent history, the vast potential of these far-out forest dwellers began to be taken for granted. A return to cultural consciousness and a renaissance as an object of study and admiration has scientists, psychonauts, athletes, chefs, foragers, and other enthusiasts exploring new benefits of this diverse kingdom and rediscovering old ones, but two authors in particular have recently cast fungi in a new role by insisting that there’s more to the wisdom of the mushroom than previously established mystical and everyday uses. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World and Bett Williams’ The Wild Kindness: A Psilocybin Odyssey speak to the many ways that mushrooms may guide humankind towards fresh and vital ways of coexisting with one another while adjusting to the pace of the massive societal shifts we face in the 21st century. 

Tsing is a feminist scholar and professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz who feels that if we should look anywhere to rescue ourselves from the problems of alienation, scarcity, climate catastrophe, and disillusionment plaguing the modern world, we should look where the mushrooms are; towards the soil and the forest floor. Her sweeping study of the Matsutake mushroom doesn’t just mimic the way mushrooms fruit and bloom, it also aims to find urgent lessons amidst this flurry of fungi for how our species should live. She describes the book as “a riot of short chapters[...] like the flushes of mushrooms that come up after a rain: an over-the-top bounty; a temptation to explore; an always too many.” Through candid photographs of mushroom farmers and researchers, tangled cultural and regional histories, and thoughtful unpackings of systems both economic and ecological, the author immerses you in a journey to the heart of the world where human and mycelial universes collide.

Reading The Mushroom at the End of the World is a lot like foraging; a barrage of lush sights, earthy smells, and lasting impressions. It sends you home with treasures that feed the mind and soul.The book examines the lifecycle and storied co-evolution with humanity of the Matsutake, a Japanese mushroom that, she points out, was the first living thing to emerge in Hiroshima after the nuclear blast in 1945; a mushroom which is a highly prized culinary delicacy and has been the subject of many poems, is often gifted in elegantly wrapped packages, and which frequently acts as a gardener itself, often helping native trees to grow in forests disturbed by human activity. 

In a moment of existential precariousness where “the spread of techniques of alienation that turn both humans and other beings into resources” has “segregated humans and policed identities, obscuring collaborative survival,” Tsing sees a time where Matsutakes have much to teach us. She writes that “fungi are ideal guides” for a future where “we must revitalize arts of noticing” and be reminded of “the lively activities of all beings, human and not human”.

Bett Williams, much like Tsing, believes observing, consuming, and listening to mushrooms might save the world. She is an award-winning writer, podcaster, and community organizer who has described herself as “a holy woman” and “a space cowboy[...]along for the ride” of the second psychedelic revolution. Williams brings an unflinching keenness to exploring the psychosocial depths inside us all in her memoir, named after a line from a trippy and enchanting song by alternative/Indie rock band The Silver Jews.The Wild Kindness follows the author as she extends her (at first solitary) knowledge and practice of mushroom consumption and cultivation out into a more cooperative, reciprocally nourishing network that includes “urban farmers, rural homesteaders, anarchist chemists, eco-scientists, cyber insurgents, Indigenous activists, queers, Santeros, Jewish mystics, Buddhists, witches, gnostic Christians, Afro-futurists, veterans, mothers, fathers, teachers, artists, writers, [and] musicians,” in other words, “everyone”.

In Williams’ world, nurturing a more complete relationship with mushrooms presents an opportunity to dive headfirst into the complexities of a newly possible existence steeped in ceremony, gratitude, and generosity. Deepening her connection to the creative communities which sustain her and the love of fungi that her peers share lets her interrogate a hollow reality composed of “impossible student loans; call-out culture; Abilify and Adderall; trigger warnings; PTSD; GoFundMe; safe spaces; paying rent in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York; Tinder and MFA or Die”. The Wild Kindness is a vision and roadmap for reclaiming our own attention from political structures that hide away health-giving forms of meaningful interaction with our surroundings and the people populating them.

The author mourns that “Not knowing what the fuck is going on is the shared purgatory we all now live in,” that western culture “is out of practice when it comes to talking about the nature of reality” and thus “ill-equipped to deal with the  inevitable anxiety that arises from this state of affairs.” Ultimately, though, Williams’ book believes in the promise of reawakening to the insights that mushrooms have to offer—insights that, on some level, we’ve had for millennia. 

This moment, she thinks, is one in which mushrooms urgently want to show us something, to “do what mushrooms do, which is help organisms be in balance with the ecosystem as the earth changes.” Mushrooms, for her, are miraculous creatures, something like benevolent aliens. They can “eat plastic[...] absorb oil and radiation[...]help cure depression, addiction, and OCD.” But what the life of mushrooms mostly demonstrates, she explains, is how to closely observe consciousness like never before, how to be better listeners to friends, family, and strangers, how to process or engage with concepts and powers bigger than ourselves. In other words, mushrooms allow us to “see our programs” and “figure out if they really fit.”

Both writers have faith that reactivating our curiosity as a species through the careful study of the mushroom kingdom can result in what Williams calls “un-forgetting”. Doing so requires paying attention to stories like those described here in which mushrooms are posed as a new kind of hero and protagonist. The heroism of the mushroom is a quiet one with a teacherly side to it; it’s one that shows us “how to look around rather than ahead” in a busy, noisy world and “reclaim places that have been deforested,” as Tsing says. It’s one that’s experimental and messy and improvisational because, as she concludes, “To live well with others, we need to use all our senses, even if it means feeling around in the duff”.


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