I’m currently working my way through Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets, in an attempt to learn more about fungi in ways I can’t just by looking at wild mushrooms through layperson’s eyes. I’m only a few chapters in, but already the author has made it quite clear just how intricately entwined fungi are in the very workings of life on Earth itself. It’s not just the fruiting mushrooms that we can see above ground; more important, perhaps, are the vast networks of mycelia, the thread-like filaments of fungal being that may produce the mushrooms themselves. Mushrooms are a temporary state; mycelia are the permanent self of the fungi; or, to use an analogy, mushrooms are to apples as mycelia are to the apple tree.
One of the most fascinating roles of fungi, in my opinion, is that of mycoremediation–the healing and restoration of damaged landscapes. Fungi are the processors of the Land’s “body”; they digest things, and convert them into usable forms for themselves and other beings. They are alchemists. So when a place is damaged, whether through fire or deforestation or disease (often caused by parasitic fungi), it is the native fungi of a place that are often the first to recover. They break down the dead organic material to create healthy soil, and are often the forerunners of the recovery of the place. Stamets says of morels:
These fast-growing and quick-to-decompose mushrooms emerge where seemingly no life could survive. As these succulent mushrooms nature and release spores, they also release fragrances that attract insects and mammals…Flies deposit larvae in morels, and as the larvae mature they attract birds and other maggot lovers. Birds and mammals coming to eat morels defecate seeds of plants far from the fire zone…Each mushroom-seeking organism imports hitchhiking species from afar with every visit, essentially carrying its own universe of organisms, an ecological footprint of flora and fauna. Then, with every mushroom encounter, each animal is dusted with sores, leaving an invisible trail of them as they wander on. As animals crisscross the barren terrain, the layering of ecological footprints creates interlacing biological pathways. Morel mushrooms…are pioneers for biodiversity, first steering animate vessels of genomic complexity into an otherwise near-lifeless landscape. (Stamets, 2005, 55-6)
This matches my previous experiences with Black Morel as totem. Morel struck me as a very opportunistic totem; not that it’s alone in that, but that’s where we connected first. So I talked to Morel more about what I read, and the habits of morels in a place scorched by fire or cleared by loggers.
Morel pointed out that sometimes opportunism has more than just a personal benefit. When morels spread out into a scorched landscape, there’s absolutely no competition, but plenty to eat in the form of charred plant and animal material. Morels make the most of that, along with other fungal opportunists. However, as Stamets eloquently described, the morels are far from the only benefactors of this pioneering and experimental nature.
This connected with a recent experience of mine where I was interviewed about my participation in the pagan community as a leader. My place there is through my writing; in neopaganism, if you write enough apparently it gives you some authority (moreso if you write well and people get something out of it!) One thing that I pointed out was that I write primarily for myself. My writing is a record of my spiritual path; that’s what this blog is. You can look over the past five years of posts here and see my progress in this path, and the many places I’ve explored as a result.However, I deliberately shared it so others could benefit from what I found as well. While this was more conscious than the activities of the little wrinkled mushrooms, the pattern is the same–a few pioneering beings move into new territory, and leave a trail for others to follow, and soon an ecosystem is created. While Therioshamanism is still a relatively new phenomenon (and generally still my own personal path rather than a shamanic tradition per se), I have found people drawing on my experiences and integrating them into their own paths.
And going forward, Morel reminded me of the importance of remembering how my explorations can be helpful to others. It’s still perfectly acceptable to act in my own self-interest. But if, in the process of doing so, I make things better for others, so much the better. Morels also thrive in complex ecosystems, not just scorched earth, and there’s a lesson in that to be sure.
Stamets, Paul (2005). Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.