Last year I read Merlin Sheldrake’s extraordinary book Entangled Life, which I have been recommending to all and sundry. It’s about the underappreciated world of fungi and the role that they play in ecology. There’s room in my life for a couple more books about fungi, and so here’s Doug Bierend’s In Search of Mycotopia: Citizen science, fungi fanatics, and the untapped potential of mushrooms.
You wouldn’t necessarily know about it unless you stumble across it, but there is a thriving subculture around fungi in America. And no, it’s not just the enduring hippy fascination with magic mushrooms, though that remains an aspect of it. There are several facets. In the cities there’s a bit of a hipster thing around gourmet mushrooms, and lots of people discovering the joys of growing their own (I have oyster mushrooms growing under the sink myself). There’s an interest in medicinal mushrooms, in the health benefits of fermented foods.
The cultivation of fungi, some of which can be quite picky, has a real punk ethic to it – a DIY spirit. People develop new techniques and share them online. They isolate new strains of yeasts for brewing and exchange them through their micro-businesses or at events. People publish zines and organise festivals, and start collectives with names like Bootleg Biology or Counter Culture Labs. The movement has its own heroes and legends.
Many of these legends appear in In Search of Mycotopia, which is a journey through this subculture. With our freelance journalist guide, readers are taken foraging in the woods, into the growing rooms of urban mushroom farms, round the labs of scientists, and to those aforementioned festivals. Much of the book is in the own words of the pioneers and gurus of fungi, as they introduce their work and share their passion.
I’ll be honest: some of these places sound unsufferable. Like one event where campers emerge in the morning and join in a singalong about fungi to start the day. There are a lot of people wearing t-shirts with mushroom based puns. But once the eye-rolling is out of the way, there’s genius here too. Since fungi have been neglected by science for a long time, the field has a lot catching up to do. Some of the most engaged and dynamic citizen science is being done around fungi, with room for amateurs and enthusiasts to make a genuine contribution. There are apps and mapping exercises. New species are being identified and described. While the author does visit formal labs and the collections of Kew Gardens, Mycology is a science that hasn’t yet been institutionalised. That makes it a chaotic and intriguing area of research, and I can see how people get drawn into it.
There’s also an environmental side to this, and Bierend spends some time with people working on mycoremediation, where fungi are used in land restoration. One chapter visits Ecuador, and the Chevron-blighted waste pools left behind by the oil industry. There are strains of fungi that can feed off oil, and environmental scientists are experimenting with ways of nurturing them to heal the land. Other teams are using fungi to help forests recover after fires. These are emerging fields, and it’s not as easy as some people say it is. Nevertheless, these are truly pioneering experiments in applied mycology for the environment, and I’ll be keeping an eye on this area.
Where Sheldrake’s book is very much about fungi, Bierend’s is ultimately about people. It’s about outsiders and the communities that they form, and how an interest in fungi shapes people’s view of the world: “Fungi are literal grassroots organisers, exemplars of bottom-up processes, and many who work closely with them start to see progress in similar terms.”
- American readers can pick up In Search of Mycotopia from Earthbound Books US, British readers from Hive. Other retailers are available, but these ones don’t serve the dark lord Sauron.
More on fungi:
Book review: Entangled Life, by Merlin Sheldrake
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