Mushrooms, the Last Survivors

Neither plant nor animal, mushrooms have confounded humans since ancient times. Now, they’re a reminder of our tenuous place in an uncertain world.

Article by Ligaya Mishan

From left: clusters of royal trumpet, yellow oyster and pink oyster mushrooms rising from a bed of moss, with blue oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms in the foreground. (Photography by Mari Maeda and Yuji Oboshi)

The mushrooms sit on high, behind glass, above bottles of Armagnac and mezcal in a bar at the Standard hotel in Manhattan’s East Village. They are barely recognisable at first, just eerie silhouettes resembling coral growths in an aquarium, blooming in laboratory-teal light: tightly branched clusters of oyster mushrooms in hot pink, yolk yellow and bruise blue, alongside lion’s mane mushrooms, shaggy white globes with spines like trailing hair.

This isn’t décor, or only incidentally so; the four-metre-long shelf is a miniature farm, installed by the New York-based start-up Smallhold as part of a larger, sprawling system made up of remote-controlled nodes at restaurants and grocery stores across the city, each producing from 14 to 35 kilos of mushrooms a week. Thousands of data points — on temperature, humidity, airflow — are transmitted daily to the company’s headquarters, to be recalibrated across the network as needed. At the Standard, where the crop goes into plates of chilaquiles and mushroom-infused bourbon cocktails, diners might stop midbite, look up and take note of their meal’s origins a few feet away. It’s a glimpse of the future of agriculture, further collapsing the distance between diner and ingredients, doing away with the cost and waste of packaging and transportation in hopes of alleviating pressure on an overtaxed environment.

Still, the solemnity of the vitrines suggests a more complicated story, framing the mushrooms as art or sacred relics — or, in this high-design environment, luxury merchandise. The market for edible fungi is projected to reach USD$69 billion worldwide by 2024, the biologist Merlin Sheldrake notes in “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures,” published this past spring. In the United States, the boom may be credited in part to the beginnings of a shift toward less meat-heavy diets but also to the broadening of the the Western palate to embrace the Japanese notion of umami, the flavour beyond flavour: rich, carnal and briny at once, hinting at some dark ripening beneath the earth or sea. For decades, diminutive button mushrooms — pallid and “bred for the back of a truck,” as Andrew Carter, the chief executive officer of Smallhold, describes them — have dominated American sales; now, meatier species like shiitakes, hen of the woods and wild matsutakes are increasingly finding a place on the table. (That is, if you can afford them. Prices for foraged Japanese matsutakes, which grow in pine forests and, like truffles, have thus far resisted attempts at commercial cultivation, hit USD$395 per 500g in Tokyo in September 2019.)

Hamish Pearch’s “Cochlea Brick Tuft” (2020) from the exhibition “Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi” at Somerset House, London, 2020. (Photography courtesy of the artist.)

In the East, mushrooms have always been prized, but only recently have they become objects of fascination in the West. Some manifestations of this are merely aesthetic, like the glossy magic-mushroom handbag in the fall 2020 Kate Spade collection or the New York jeweler Brent Neale Winston’s trippy pendants, evoking childhood nostalgia with a wink. On a more serious note, the increasing costs of health care and an erosion of faith in the medical-industrial complex have driven greater numbers of people to homeopathy, itself a multibillion-dollar industry, one in which fungi are promoted as aphrodisiacs and immunity boosters — the latter more urgent in our new age of Covid-19. Traces of so-called functional (i.e., medicinal) mushrooms already suffuse the likes of high-end skin care (to soothe and brighten) and coffee (to tamp the jitters brought on by caffeine); now, amid fears of contagion, demand for over-the-counter vitamins and dietary supplements has spiked, and sales of capsule forms of shiitakes, cordyceps and turkey tails may well rise, although there is no scientific evidence to suggest that they offer any protection against the coronavirus.

Psilocybin mushrooms, illegal in America and Australia, have been touted as a treatment for anxiety and depression, both conditions likely to be exacerbated by our current crisis. At the same time, they, too, have become status symbols, co-opted by capitalism, stocked in the bathroom cabinet and taken in microdoses — no longer a conduit to the divine but simply an enhancement of creativity and productivity, shoring up the very structures and systems that, in the countercultural era of the 1960s, hallucinogens were supposed to help dismantle.

As mushrooms proliferate — symbolically and literally — in the worlds of fashion, art and technology, so do our interpretations of what they represent. This risks turning them into nothing more than commodities and hollow signifiers, projections of our anxieties and desires. Yet, however we try to explain and exploit these organisms, they continue to confound and resist us.

Brent Neale’s Magic Mushroom Pendant in 18k yellow gold with tiger’s eye, amethyst and sapphires. (Photography by Matthew Novak)

To the ancient Egyptians, mushrooms were totems of immortality, reserved for the plates of pharaohs and their kin; to the Indigenous Mazatecs of southern Mexico, they are “holy children,” speaking through the mystics who eat them. A few scholars have suggested that the prototype for Santa Claus can be traced back to the healing rituals of Sami shamans near the Arctic Circle, who, fueled by the psychotropic red-and-white-capped Amanita muscaria, “flew” across the snow in their reindeer-drawn sleighs — supposedly the animals ate the mushrooms, too. The British philologist John Marco Allegro went so far as to argue in a controversial 1970 book that Christianity arose from a mushroom-worshipping cult, with Amanita muscaria, not the proverbial apple, as the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

As emissaries from the underworld and creatures of the in-between, even ordinary, nonhallucinogenic mushrooms defy the binaries we often use to organise the universe. Among the known species — around 14,000, with possibly another 150,000 yet to be named or described — there is no fixed shape: Beyond the archetypal umbrella, mushrooms take on a panoply of profiles, from woolly trumpets and shaggy beards to fascinator veils and black-tipped cigarettes. Some glow in the dark. Lacking chlorophyll and a vascular system, they are unclassifiable as plants, despite their historic inclusion in the study of botany. Nor are they animals, although the fungi and animal kingdoms share a common ancestor dating back somewhere between 650 million and 1.5 billion years.

There is something uncanny, too, about the speed with which they appear. In the wild, mushrooms emerge practically overnight, en masse, a sudden army out of nothing. Such innocents they seem, so close to the ground, fit to shelter only ants and fairies. But they are neither tiny nor powerless: Beneath those charming buttons and listing stalks grow the skinny filaments that make up the mycelium, the vegetative part of the fungus, branching and spreading in a great cobweb inside the earth. According to the mycologist Paul Stamets, based in Olympia, Washington, more than eight miles of mycelium can twist through a single cubic inch of soil. In West Africa, mushrooms have been measured with caps more than a metre in diameter, but the largest fungus on record (and the largest living organism by area) is the mostly invisible Armillaria ostoyae in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest, whose mycelium spans more than 2,300 acres, announcing its presence above ground in scattered clusters of pale little parasols — each capable of shedding 30,000 spores per second, each carrying within it a future colony. A mushroom is an iceberg.

A duo of royal trumpet mushrooms alongside ladybugs, lichen and wild ferns. (Mari Maeda and Yuji Oboshi)

Today, those microscopic strands are being repurposed as biodegradable textiles like the Dutch designer Aniela Hoitink’s 3-D-molded MycoTEX, so malleable it requires neither scissors nor needles, and Reishi, developed by the San Francisco-based company MycoWorks and is as buttery as leather. Mycelium can be made into bricks, too, suggesting the possibility of architecture with a minimal ecological footprint: The artist Philip Ross, one of MycoWorks’ founders, once built a teahouse out of mushroom materials for an art exhibition, then boiled the bricks to make tea for viewers. The idea that fungi could be ecological saviours — some species are capable of breaking down plastics, petrochemicals and toxic waste, filtering streams and even absorbing radiation — ran through “Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi,” an exhibition mounted earlier a year ago at the Somerset House in London. Francesca Gavin, the curator, juxtaposed mycelium shoes and lampshades with the British artist Hamish Pearch’s sculptures of mushrooms sprouting out of charred-black toast and the South Korea-born artist Jae Rhim Lee’s Infinity Burial Suit, a death shroud reimagined as pajamas and suffused with mushroom spores to hasten decomposition and break down the toxins our bodies absorb over the course of our lives so they’re not returned into the earth.

“I think humans take for granted how much work is done by other organisms to make the world livable,” says the Minnesota-based artist Liz Sexton, whose work includes hyper-realistic mushrooms fashioned out of papier-mâché, part of a larger project to recreate wildlife in urban habitats as a way of underscoring our displacement of and alienation from the natural world. Mushrooms, she says, “remind us that we’re hardly at the center of it all.” Lee’s burial suit inverts the traditional relationship of humans and mushrooms: Instead of feeding on them, we are the food. She’s gone so far as to train a special cadre of mushrooms to recognise her body, feeding it her cut fingernails and sloughed-off skin in hopes that they’ll make quicker work of her eventual corpse as a result. It’s her way of accepting responsibility for contributing to the environmental crisis — what Gavin calls “the mess we have made” — but also a realignment of how we perceive the inevitability of death, as something to be accepted rather than feared, and of the hierarchy of the world, in which we are not the masters or even stewards of nature but simply part of it.

A spread from Phyllis Ma’s “Mushrooms & Friends 2” featuring a closeup of Daedaleopsis confragosa (left), found in upstate New York, and Lepista nuda (right), commonly known as “blewit,” found in Berlin. (Photography by Phyllis Ma)

Mushrooms were once spurned in the West for their associations with rot. The entry on them in the magisterial 18th-century French Encyclopédie declares that no amount of cooking could redeem them and advises sending them “back to the dung heap where they are born.” In fact, the dung heap may be where they do their best work; as the Portland, Ore.-based mycologist Peter McCoy notes in the 2015 documentary short film “Fungiphilia Rising” (directed by Madison McClintock), fungi are “nature’s alchemists,” playing an essential role in transmuting decay into nutrients and keeping entire woodlands alive. Those nutrients are sent in multiple directions over acres of land via the mycelium, which Stamets has called “Earth’s natural internet” and others describe as the Wood Wide Web. This living network has uncanny similarities to latter-day technologies like blockchain, but for mushroom advocates like McCoy, who founded the grass-roots organization Radical Mycology with the naturalist Maya Elson in 2006, it has philosophical implications as well: no less than the restructuring and rehabilitation of society itself.

A quieter revolution unfolds in the pages of the New York-based artist Phyllis Ma’s zine “Mushrooms and Friends,” now on its second issue. Originally inspired by a visit to Smallhold’s Brooklyn office and the luminous blue tanks of mushrooms on display there (which generate about 400 pounds a week), Ma started photographing the organisms in the studio and out of their natural context. Some appear starkly alone, others surrounded by the crumbled ruins of their fruiting blocks, against a dimensionless wash of color that gives them a faintly extraterrestrial aura. Even in these meticulous tableaus, they thwart the viewer: These are not still lifes but portraits, the mushrooms subjects rather than objects. Ma casts herself as a collaborator, one of the “friends” of the zine’s title, along with the mushroom cultivators she met via Instagram or the mycologists she consulted to help her identify specimens she found on her own in the wild, like a puffball in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, so big she thought it was a softball gone astray, or a blewit in Berlin, half the size of her pinkie and dark purple. The back of each zine includes an index with the species’ names, like a dramatis personae.

Seana Gavin’s “Mindful Mushroom” (2020) from the exhibition “Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi” at Somerset House, London, 2020. (Photography courtesy of the artist.)
Alex Morrison’s “Mushroom Motif (Black and Ochre)” (2017) from the exhibition “Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi” at Somerset House, London, 2020. (Photography courtesy of the artist and L’inconnue Gallery, Montreal.)

In the end, what may be most compelling about mushrooms is how they subvert our expectations. The artist and art historian Alissa Walls, writing in a 2014 essay about the mycologically themed works of the American painter Cy Twombly and the American experimental composer John Cage, notes that in the arts, “so often an equation is made between the upward gaze and the uplifted subject,” whereas “the downward gaze is often abjectly cast,” implying distaste and a sense of superiority — or else shame. Twombly challenged this assumption, Walls argues, by making the downward gaze partly one of reverence, as if praying or honoring the dead. Ma does something similar by flattening the perspective, approaching the mushrooms head-on, magnified.

Cage, too, thought that attention must be paid to these lowly organisms — a lifelong obsession chronicled in “John Cage: A Mycological Foray,” an omnibus of his mushroom-themed writings, which came out last month. While living in upstate New York in the 1960s, he often went mushroom hunting, sometimes selling his haul to the (now shuttered) Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan, resigning them to commodification in order to supplement his income. Ever attuned to the music hidden in silence, he insisted that we should learn to listen to mushrooms as they released their spores to the air. (The Czech composer Vaclav Halek, born some two decades after Cage, indeed listened; his pieces were, he said, a record of what he’d heard in their presence.)

How potent a metaphor for today, as the chasm between have and have-not widens, to see this army of the ignored and the disdained, massing underfoot. The American writer Sylvia Plath turned the supposed meekness of these nonbinary beings into an insidious strength in her 1959 poem “Mushrooms,” channeling the voice of the “Nudgers and shovers / In spite of ourselves”:

Bland-mannered, asking
Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

The sibilants in the repeated phrase, spoken aloud, are half whisper, half hiss. It’s a moment of menace that’s reprised at the poem’s end, in an allusion to the Sermon on the Mount: “We shall by morning / Inherit the earth.” Time for the overlords is running out.