“Mushrooms were the roses in the garden of that unseen world, because the real mushroom plant was underground. The parts you could see — what most people called a mushroom — was just a brief apparition. A cloud flower.” ― Margaret Atwood, “The Year of the Flood”
FUNGI ARE EVERYWHERE. Quite literally, I discovered, upon watching the sleeper Netflix documentary “Fantastic Fungi.” I learned that there is a vast mycelium network blanketing the sub-forest floor — approximately 300 miles’ worth if you were to stretch it out linearly. Trees use this network to communicate with one another, the OG “world wide web.”
From the pandemic-fueled popularity of home-growing mushroom kits to a boom in the foraging movement, fungi — and mushrooms specifically — are having a cultural moment. There’s a preponderance of mushroom iconography in both the fashion and design spaces; mycelium as a viable sustainable material is gaining traction in everything from building construction to vegan leathers; and psilocybin is revolutionizing the mental health care industry. It’s never been more hip to ’shroom (legally, of course).
A primer (for those of us who haven’t taken Earth Science since the ’90s): mushrooms are the fruiting, above-ground portion of a fungus — composed of the cap and the stem. Mycelia form the vast, below-ground network of fibers that make up the rest of the fungus. Fungi, one of the five kingdoms of living organisms, encompass a larger category that includes yeast, molds, mildews, and, of course, mushrooms. Though mushrooms are located in your vegetable aisle, they are neither a vegetable nor even a plant (two of the other four kingdoms). Saying “flora and fauna” is actually exclusionary — it should really be “flora, fauna, and funga.”
Climate change, political unrest, and COVID-19, with its attendant supply-chain debacles, have all given rise to a survivalist movement.
In an effort to get in on the hype (and always open to a family project), I headed to Etsy and selected a chic combo of shiitake and blue oyster kits. We eagerly cut open the packages on arrival, found the water spray bottle, and planted the little bags of sawdust and spores into some plastic storage bins — previously home to a bunch of New Yorker magazines from the ’90s and the requisite tangle of chargers for items we no longer owned. The idea of new life filling these old shells of dead objects felt poetic.
“What next?” my kids asked. “We wait for the flush,” I replied, feeling truly scientific.
A flush is the term for a crop of mushrooms, so it all felt like a gamble. For several weeks, nothing happened. Convinced I had managed to kill the organisms famous for propagating themselves in neglect, we woke up one morning to a cascading flush so abundant that it was hard to believe it had happened overnight. And that’s of course because it hadn’t — the shiitake tip of the fungus iceberg was the last element to burst forth, but the mycelia had been hard at work reproducing the whole time.
Now that my family was on the mushroom train, we wanted to take the show on the road. In preparation for visiting my father in Massachusetts — a veritable hotbed for mushroom foraging — I joined the Boston Mycological Club Facebook group and was immediately smitten with the beautiful snaps of members’ “seeking ID” posts, images of mushrooms that people were looking to their community to help identify. I was barely a foraging tourist, but the group’s natural whimsy mixed with a shared nerdy interest struck me as a ripe setting for a love story — a sort of Mycophilia Missed Connections.
To shed some light on the practice of foraging, I also spoke to George Ananchev, a Russian-American Ph.D. student and lifelong mushroom hunter. He painted the process as a highly sensorial dance through nature: “There’s a lot of smells in the air. The ideal time for foraging is right after a rain has passed through. You’re looking for particular trees [that specific varietals grow near], and in so doing you’re really taking in the bark, the needles, and scanning your environment in a very particular way. Identifying mushrooms is an aesthetic process.”
We’re in an era of questioning binaries — in gender and in politics. Mushrooms are punk, a welcome anti-binary that feels very now.
Armed with my children, a basket, and “The Complete Mushroom Hunter,” we set off one damp fall morning near my childhood home in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Almost immediately, I was struck with the observation of all that I had missed on these trails growing up — because I hadn’t been looking. My 7-year-old daughter had insisted on bringing a microscope she’d dug up in my father’s office, and was thrilled to be on our sleuthing mission. My son, not to be outdone, ran ahead to assure he’d be the first to point out each new discovery. I’d thought we might find a few varietals on our three-quarter-mile “hike,” enough to distract them from the fact that I’d just successfully gotten them to “hike.” In about 40 minutes we instead found 17 distinct varietals. My basket was overflowing and we had to turn back, as I’d run out of room.
The following hours were spent poring over various books, flagging possible matches, and sliding in some learning: “Just one mushroom’s mycelium system outnumbers the pathways of neural networks in the human brain!” We arranged and photographed our treasures but stopped short of making a mushroom stew (despite their begging). As my dad reminded me: “All mushrooms are edible. Some only once.”
So why are mushrooms flourishing in the collective consciousness these days? On a practical level, climate change, political unrest, and COVID-19, with its attendant supply-chain debacles, have all given rise to a survivalist movement. Not sure whether my local grocer may be reliably stocked one day? Could I ever grow my own food? Where would I even begin? There is a definite redirection toward food awareness and sourcing, which growing and foraging begin to incorporate. Mushrooms also thrive in difficult environments. Symbolically, they represent growth and regeneration after death. What better time to celebrate and elevate an emblem that stands for renewal and prosperity as a natural process after such great loss.
Furthermore, from a sustainability perspective, mycelia and mushrooms make a powerful alternative to meat, leather, and even plastics. They literally reproduce in the dark using no energy — hard to beat that. Another timely appeal: the existence of mushrooms as outside the well-traveled plant/animal binary feels almost rebellious. We’re in an era of questioning binaries — in gender and in politics. Mushrooms are punk, a welcome anti-binary that feels very now.
The use of psilocybin in the treatment of depression and addiction is typically administered with music. There is an inherent motif in mushrooms of integration and multisensorial wholeness — a larger trend in wellness of alternative means of healing, especially from the natural world. Now more than ever we’re starting to question prescription pills and Big Pharma as the only answers to mental and physical illness. Our fascination with mushrooms in this way also represents our current enchantment with the power of nature, art, and alternative medicine.
Spiritually, the mycelium system is an underground tapestry of connectivity. Perhaps in our increasingly isolated existences — rapidly exacerbating as a result of technology and the pandemic — mushrooms remind us that we’re never as alone as we fear. It’s about an aspirational shared network and a harmonious balance that exists in nature, where everyone and everything has its place. No wonder the Smurfs seemed so happy.
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Ivy Elrod Writer
Ivy Elrod is a multidisciplinary creative living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her writing has most recently been published in the new Playgirl Magazine. She is also an actress and a playwright, and was once the youngest Rockette at Radio City. She is now principal designer and founder of Wilder, an experiential showroom and contemporary design firm.
Gigi Rose Gray Illustrator
Gigi Rose Gray is an illustrator and fine artist born and raised in New York City, now living in Los Angeles. She received a BFA in illustration at Parsons School of Design.