- Arts of Inclusion, or How to Love a Mushroom
Next time you walk through a forest, look down. A city lies under your feet. If you were somehow to descend into the earth, you would find yourself surrounded by the city's architecture of webs and filaments. Fungi make those webs as they interact with the roots of trees, forming joint structures of fungus and root called mycorrhiza. Mycorrhizal webs connect not just root and fungus, but also—by way of fungal filaments—tree and tree, in forest entanglements. This city is a lively scene of action and interaction. There are many ways here to eat and to share food. There are recognizable forms of hunting. For example, some fungi lasso little soil worms called nematodes for dinner. But this is one of the crudest ways to enjoy a meal. Experts in refinement, the mycorrhizal fungi siphon energy-giving sugars from trees. Some of those sugars are redistributed through the fungal network from tree to tree. Others support dependent plants, such as mushroom-loving mycophiles that tap the network to send out pale or colorful stems of flowers (e.g., Indian pipes, coral-root orchids). Meanwhile, like an inside-out stomach, fungi secrete enzymes into the soil around them, digesting organic material—and even rocks—and absorbing nutrients that are released in the process. These nutrients are also available for trees and other plants, which use them to produce more sugar for themselves—and for the network.
Throughout this process, there is a whole lot of smelling going on, as plants, animals, and fungi sniff out not just good meals but also good partners. And what wonderful smells, even for an animal nose, like mine! (Some fungi, such as truffles, depend on animals to smell out their reproductive bodies, to spread around their spores.) Reach down and smell a clot of forest earth; it smells like the underground city of fungi.
As with human cities, this underground city is a site of cosmopolitan transactions. Unfortunately, humans have mainly ignored this lively cosmopolitanism. We have built our human cities through destruction and simplification, chopping down forests and replacing them with food-growing plantations while we live on asphalt and concrete. In agribusiness plantations, we coerce plants to grow without the assistance of other beings, [End Page 191] including fungi in the soil. We replace fungally supplied nutrients with fertilizers obtained from the mining and chemical industries, with their trails of pollution and exploitation. We breed our crops by isolating them in chemical stews, crippling them, like caged and beakless chickens. We maim and simplify crop plants until they no longer know how to participate in multispecies worlds. One of the many extinctions that result from all this planning is the cosmopolitanism of the underground city. And almost no one notices, because so few humans even know of the existence of that city.
Yet a good many of those few who do notice fungi love them with a breathless passion. Gourmets, herbalists, and those who would remediate world ecology often become devotees of the fungal world. Wild mushroom foragers praise their unexpected bounty, their colors, tastes, and smells, and their promise of a livelihood from the woods. How many times have foragers told me of the heat of "mushroom fever," which drives them to dodge their other obligations to take up the wild thrill of the chase? Even commercial agents are giddy with the unpredictability of deals involving a capricious commodity. Scientists who study fungi rave about them in a manner quite dissimilar to scholars of fruit flies or HeLa cells. And, while some fungal devotees are content with personal association with fungi, others long to share their passion with the world.
How do lovers of fungi practice arts of inclusion that call to others? In these times of extinction, when even slight acquaintance can make the difference between preservation and callous disregard, we might want to know.
Henning Knudsen, curator of fungi at Copenhagen University's Botanical Museum, shows me around the fungi collection at the herbarium in April 2008. At first the aisles seem neat and impersonal. Then we open the folded envelopes and expose dried...