‘The fungal awakening’: how we came to love (and fear) fungi

In a world-first, Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration approved the controlled clinical use of psilocybin mushrooms to treat post-traumatic stress and depressionPhotograph: Yarygin/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Some people are drawn to beautiful birds. Others are enamoured with orchids. There are those who are mesmerised by the kaleidoscopic swish and sway of tropical fish. But mention you’re interested in fungi, and you’re likely to be met with a raised eyebrow, a sideways glance, or perhaps even a choked-back guffaw. You may even watch faces warp from expressions of interest to ones of disgust. Fortunately, however, things are changing, and fungi are finally being looked at anew.

Fungi have endured a long history of neglect and disdain. In 1887 the British mycologist William Hay commented that he who studied fungi “must boldly face a good deal of scorn … and is actually regarded as a sort of idiot among the lower orders”. A few years earlier the nature writer Margaret Plues observed how the stranger “blinded by conventionalities” sneered at those seeking fungi. Unlike birders who look upwards for their charismatic avian delights, fungus hunters glance downwards, for what the “father of modern taxonomy”, Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus, referred to as “thievish and voracious beggars”.

After all, many fungi are slimy. There are those that harbour hallucinogens. Others are poisonous, some fatally so. They seem to pop up unpredictably, inexplicably. We don’t like that; humans like certainty. Fungi appear when no one’s looking, then poof, in a puff of spores, they’re gone. Mushrooms often emerge in great snaking arcs or rings, defying obvious explanation. They have the gall to spring forth on manicured lawns or putting greens. They emerge from between bathroom tiles or in the shower recess, or worse, in human nether regions. Fear and disgust of fungi are deeply entwined.

An Anglosphere of fear

Over the centuries, in an attempt to find answers to fungal conundrums and to warn the unwary, fantastic folktales arose. It’s perhaps little wonder that fungi quickly succumbed to associations with the supernatural and the workings of witches, leprechauns and supposedly lowly toads. Today some people in the English-speaking world have a great disdain for fungi and many fear them. Most simply have no interest in them as food or otherwise.

So why are the Anglo cultures so fearful?

One theory is that people lost connection to their surrounding environments as the public fields and forests where they foraged became privatised. They not only lost access to the land and its mushrooms but to the knowledge that accompanied foraging. The revolutionising of agriculture by private landholders saw crops planted, harvested and sold, and foraging was only for the nomadic and the poor. Contempt for the forager – and the fungi they foraged – spread throughout the Anglosphere of the British empire.

Systematic mycology began in Australia with the appointment of agricultural scientist Daniel McAlpine in 1890. He studied pathogenic microfungi including rusts and smuts that infect crop monocultures. The scientific study of fungi has always been linked to agriculture in Australia, largely through the lens of disease and loss. This may have set a precedent where many people’s default response to fungi is to view them only as problematic and disease-causing, overshadowing their importance in underpinning ecosystems.

The fungal turn

Yet – at last – the ecological benefits and great utility of fungi are being recognised. . The growing public penchant for fungi – from scientific endeavours to cult TV series – suggests we are in something of a “fungal awakening”. We’re finally shedding the shackles of mycophobia to recognise not only their vital ecological importance but their tremendous utility.

An emerging league of mycophiles are delving into the many dimensions of the kingdom of fungi. There are those tapping into fungi to help restore stressed ecologies. Others grow mushrooms on their kitchen tables, resisting the monopolies of industrialised agriculture. Some head to the forest to forage for fungi or seek deeper connections with nature. Writers and artists weave fungi into their work. And supermarket shelves offer more than bland old button mushrooms – a growing myco-cuisine allows you to savour shiitake and maitake, delight in lion’s mane, or marvel at the great array of colourful oyster mushrooms on offer. It seems that mushrooms are finally having their moment, as the buzz about their possibilities breaks boundaries and offers exciting innovations in science, technology and culture.

But beyond mushrooms, mycelium – the living, growing feeding part of the fungus organism – is being harnessed to provide low-impact alternatives to animal products, synthetics and electronics. Bio-engineers explore innovations in applied mycology using mycelium as building materials and to replace plastics. Clothing designers fashion mycelium into Mylo, or vegan leather. Fungi are not only being accepted but seem to have become hip.

It is not just in fashion and culture but pharmacology too. The magic of psychedelic mushrooms has long been understood by Indigenous peoples and others across cultures. But the association of ’shrooms with the counterculture movement saw them banned in the US and Australia. Years of campaigning by advocates for the mental health benefits of psilocybe mushrooms have finally paid off. From July the controlled clinical use of psilocybe has been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration for the treatment of post-traumatic stress and depression – in a world-first.

The fungal awakening is also part of a bigger ecological turn, sparked perhaps by concern about climate change, the demise of species and the need to avert our precarious trajectory. From hi-tech labs to kitchen tables, innovations and applications of myco-technology are emerging at a rapid rate. Many hold promise for developing fungal alternatives to current technologies for remediating damaged environments. The great challenge is to scale them up to a useful or meaningful level. But solutions to the environmental issues created by humans are unlikely to be found in a technological fungal fix. That requires a change in thinking. Will fungi save the world? Probably not, but they could offer insights into more sensitive ways of being in the world. Remediating our relationship with the natural world could be a first step toward using fungi to remediate environments.

Forests, fear and The Last of Us

The Last of Us, the latest hit TV series based on a video game of the same name, plunges us into a post-apocalyptic horror story where humans are infected by a fungal villain and reduced to zombies. While the fungus that inspired the series (Ophiocordyceps/Cordyceps, or vegetable caterpillars as they’re commonly known) does exist, the “fiction” part of science fiction sees this parasitic fungus migrate from an invertebrate host to Homo sapiens. The unsettling notion of a body-invading, behaviour-modifying parasite has macabre appeal, stoking our historical discomfort with the fungus world, as does the haunting sensation of not being quite sure whether it’s fact or fantasy.

The fungi featured in HBO’s The Last of Us play actually a vital role in maintaining forest health.Photograph: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

While Hollywood might put some people off fungi forever, some have been drawn to find out if this haunting killer fungus is fact or fantasy. And they find that, in fact, our forests rely upon these vegetable caterpillars.

They play a vital role in maintaining forest health, regulating populations of insects and other arthropods such as centipedes, spiders and scorpions. Arthropods, like fungi, are crucial to forest function but at times forest conditions can change in such a way that they favour a particular species. Taking advantage of the new conditions, this species can rapidly multiply and trigger a slew of effects, depleting resources for other forest inhabitants and altering forest dynamics. This is where the parasitic nature of vegetable caterpillars can do the forest a favour. Most species of vegetable caterpillars parasitise a particular genus or species. For example, one might target a particular ant genus. Another might be restricted to a moth genus. This specificity means they are likely to play a role in regulating arthropod populations. As Sir David Attenborough reminds us, by preventing any one genus or species of arthropod from gaining the upper hand, they help keep ecosystems stable.

As we come to appreciate how fungi help hang ecosystems together and they win new fans, we might rethink our relationship with these organisms. Perhaps we’ll spare that puffball from a ruthless kick across the paddock, tread more gently and find ways to encourage their flourishing. There’s no such thing as a bad fungus after all.

Article by Dr Alison Pouliot, an ecologist, environmental photographer, and author of Underground Lovers, out now through NewSouth Books

published by The Guardian

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